HONOLULU – The Kauai surfer was lucky: The 8-foot-long shark that took a half moon-shaped chomp out of his board didn’t go for a second bite.
He made it back to shore, shaken but unharmed, and the spat-out 13-inch chunk of board washed up on shore later that day Jan. 5, the only casualty of the first shark attack of 2007 on a surfboard.
Given the shark’s razor sharp teeth, a carnivorous appetite and a reputation as a “man-eater,” it’s easy to understand why attacks like that grab headlines.
But conservationists are out to rehabilitate the image of the shark and rally support for protecting the misunderstood fish’s dwindling numbers.
They estimate 20 percent of the world’s shark population is threatened – and they’re calling upon the public to give up fear and start acting on the predator’s behalf.
“They’re not all just teeth,” said Sonja Fordham, policy director of the Belgium-based Shark Alliance and director of the shark conservation program of the Washington-based Ocean Conservancy.
Experts point out that for all the hoopla over shark attacks, they’re relatively few and fatalities are even fewer. Last year there were 86 known and suspected shark encounters, with seven confirmed deaths and the shark involvement in another two ocean fatalities uncertain, according to the Global Shark Attack File.
Meanwhile, about 100 million sharks and their close relatives are killed each year, either deliberately or as fishermen’s bycatch, according to the Shark Alliance, a five-month-old international coalition of advocacy and ocean recreation groups.
That would make for a fatality ratio of about 1 human to every 10 million sharks, some conservation advocates point out.
Over the past 15 years both the public and government ocean managers have come to realize that sharks – which include more than 400 species – are a more diverse group than the voracious monster portrayed in “Jaws,” Fordham said.
“Sharks underwater are just the most magnificent animals,” said Marie Levine, executive director of the Princeton, N.J.-based Shark Research Institute. “They just move with such grace you expect to hear music.”
Sharks range from the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, which grows up to 50 feet long and feeds mostly on plankton and other small prey, to the cookie-cutter shark, an up to 20-inch, bioluminescent fish that cuts plugs of flesh out of its much larger prey.
Relatively few species pose a threat to humans.
The most feared of sharks, the great white, is also among the most protected. In New Zealand, fines of up to $172,000 and six months in prison for harming the fish are about to go into effect.
The path to protection, however, is more difficult for lesser-known shark species such as the spiny dog fish, which has an unfortunate name and what some call “beady eyes,” Fordham said.
Several years ago the Ocean Conservancy faced just such a challenge when it led a push to get U.S. protection for the smalltooth sawfish, a relative of the shark with a bizarre-looking, long snout ringed with protruding teeth.
“When these species are going up against salmon and right whales … and other endangered marine mammals, they’re not exactly the most cuddly of the group,” Fordham said.