Are You Afraid of Sharks?

by Apryl Boyle, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of El Porto Shark

A majority of surfers are accustomed to answering the question, “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” when talking to a non-surfer about their lifestyle. Several surfers that I’ve met over the years, in fact, are worried they’ll become a meal when they’re out in the lineup. These fears are largely unfounded and risks are low. Surfers are in a position to not only be ocean stewards, but much-needed, effective voices in shark conservation. The ocean is an essential habitat that is shared by over two hundred and thirty thousand recorded species[1].  Why should humans feel that they can control and regulate these inhabitants?

Most everyone that follows shark conservation realizes that humans are killing sharks at alarming rates. We estimate that 11,000 sharks die every hour. That means that around 100 million sharks are killed every year. Finning, fisheries bycatch, and fear are decimating the population to a point where extinction is a distinct possibility for several shark species. In places like Western Australia, reproductively mature sharks are caught and killed in a misguided practice aimed at human safety. In reality, culling sharks does nothing to keep sharks away from areas that humans have claimed as their own to swim in. Killing larger sharks that are breeding age is detrimental in that these animals take many years to reach maturity, have long gestation periods, and give birth to few individuals at a time. We need to replace fear with facts and take back our sharks (as my Shark Angels colleagues would say)!

Photo by Gerald Schömbs on Unsplash

Removing sharks from an ecosystem causes what is known as trophic downgrading and can contribute to climate change[2]. Trophic downgrading is what happened when wolves were removed from Yellowstone in the early 1900s. Elk populations grew unchecked and all of the greenery was eaten up, so much that the land became unstable. Reintroduction of wolves in this area has returned Yellowstone to a healthy ecosystem. The Pew Charitable Trusts have two easy to watch videos that explain the effects of shark removal from an ecosystem – one from Hawaii[3] and the other from coral reef systems[4]. Watch these short, easy to understand videos and share them with others. Unfortunately, once all of the larger sharks are removed from an ecosystem there really is not a way to be able to put them back. For example, Great White Sharks do not survive in captivity because of space, what is thought to be depression, and injuries[5]. We would not be able to reintroduce them if they all disappeared.

How can surfers help? First, they can be the voice of reason to the public when questioned about a fear of sharks. Honestly, I’ve had outside set waves and marine mammals give me more of a scare than any shark has. Both events occur much more frequently – larger, outside waves and marine mammal encounters – than do shark sightings in my decades of surfing experience. Set waves and wipeouts have been the only things to cause me surfing injuries over my lifetime of surfing. Surfers (and all beachgoers) can easily become educated on shark conservation through a number of resources; their local library, reputable shark non-profits, or even free online university courses from websites like edX[6]. The point is to actively replace fear with facts and to be an advocate for shark conservation. An ocean without sharks is scarier than an ocean with sharks.

Simple things can be done to conserve all marine life and we’d be remiss not to reinforce these. Abstaining from the use of single-use plastics, being an ocean-friendly pet parent and pick up/discard properly your pet waste, not purchasing products that exploit sharks or other marine life, and take all of your trash with you when visiting the beaches, parks, and all outdoor recreational areas. Surely, if you’re a regular to this blog you’re aware of what you can do. The single simplest thing that everyone can implement immediately is abstaining from using straws. Honestly, humankind went on for quite some time being able to consume liquids without straws (except in rare medical cases, of course).

El Porto Shark has been researching surfer-shark interactions with the goal of determining how we can create more Citizen Scientists and Shark Advocates. Our mission is to advocate ocean and shark conservation through science, education, and action. We were spawned from the surfing community and it only makes sense that we hyper-focus on the community that we know and are a part of to start. We will be presenting preliminary research next month at San Diego State University at the Impact Zones and Liminal Spaces: The Culture and History of Surfing[1] about attitudes around sharks and what surfers can do to be effective advocates.

For our research we have two surveys online, one for surfers[2] and the other for beachgoers in general[3] which may include surfers. In addition, we are conducting and recording in-person interviews at selected surf breaks in the Los Angeles area, soon to be doing more in Ventura, Orange, and San Diego counties. The in-person interviews will be recorded for video and then edited for content to show qualitative and anecdotal responses and attitudes toward sharks. To this point of our data collection for the surfer only survey (n=152), most respondents are in Southern California (46%) and are especially concentrated in the Los Angeles County area (23%). We aim to keep the surveys open to attain more international respondents as well as a larger sample size in California. Later this year we will report complete results and next steps in a forthcoming publication.

The El Porto Shark team is available for workshops; panel, featured, or keynote speaking engagements; guest blogs, articles and scientific journalism; and any way that we can spread our mission to conserve the ocean and sharks.



[1] Hammerton Z & Ford A. “Decolonising the Waters: Interspecies Encounters Between Sharks and Humans” Animal Studies Journal  7(1), 2018, 270-303

2 Boyle, A. “Sharks, Climate Change, and What Can Be Done” AltaSea

Sharks, Climate Change, and What Can Be Done

3 Sharks Play Critical Role in Ocean Food Web

4 Video: Cartoonist Jim Toomey on Sharks and Ocean Health

5 Why NO Aquarium in the WORLD Has s Great White Shark!

6 Sharks! Global Biodiversity, Biology, and Conservation

7 Impact Zones and Liminal Spaces: The Culture and History of Surfing at San Diego State University, April 26-28, 2019

8 Sharks & Surfers

9 Sharks & Public Perception

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