Uploaded to Lush Player June 2019: “Paul Cox | Shark Trust”
It occurred to me recently that while I’ve recorded numerous podcasts on birds of prey, badgers, foxes, bees, plants (see the Menu options above) – I’ve barely mentioned sharks, one of the planet’s most threatened, most beautifully evolved and most important predators, a group of animals that are so misunderstood that according to some polls I found online, a large number of respondents didn’t know that sharks were fish, thinking that they were mammals like dolphins.
But leaving taxonomy
to one side for a moment, let’s get straight to the shark-sized
elephant in the room. When I said the word ‘shark’ I’m willing
to place a small wager that the image that popped in to your head
will be pretty much the same image that will pop into the heads of
many of the people around you: a big, scary, sinister, dangerous
animal. With sharp teeth.
The truth is, of course, like most things in nature, far more interesting. Sharks are actually an incredibly varied group of animals. There are around 500 extant species, with new species being discovered almost every year – in fact, roughly a fifth of current living sharks and the closely-related rays have been described since 2002. The smallest shark is less than 20 cm long – the largest, the Whale Shark, can grow to around 12 metres, weigh 19000kg, and feeds almost exclusively on plankton. Sharks are curious, in many cases highly social, occupy many different aquatic zones, and feed on everything from shellfish to seals – but are they dangerous?
We tend to think of ‘dangerous’ only in terms of what’s dangerous to us, but just three or four species account for the vast majority of shark attacks and according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), between 1958 and 2016 there were just 2,785 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks around the world. Of those 439 were fatal – and while of course it won’t seem that way to the families concerned, that’s a remarkably low figure considering how many of us are in the ocean at any one time. And given that we are responsible for taking some 100 million sharks from the ocean every year, it’s far more accurate to say that it’s us humans that are dangerous to sharks, not the other way around.
I went to speak with Paul Cox, managing director of the UK-based charity Shark Trust, to learn more about protecting and promoting these fascinating animals. Paul is a marine biologist by training, and in the blurb on his Shark Trust ‘who we are’ page he says that he is “fascinated by how we communicate as well as what we communicate”.
Which seemed to me to be a really good basis for a conversation. While we covered welfare vs pragmatism, sustainability, fundraising, and the Trust’s links with a somewhat controversial Swimming with Sharks experience, we began by discussing how the Shark Trust helps a terrestrial species like us connect with the ocean and connect with sharks…and how might the way he communicates help with one of the major problems facing sharks today – overfishing….