July 14 is Shark Awareness Day, a day created to dispel myths about sharks and to raise awareness about the importance of sharks to the ocean. It is a day to recognize the great risk of extinction many species of sharks and rays face, and how we can act to save them. Timed around the famous Shark Week by the Discovery Channel and now National Geographic’s Shark Fest, when millions view the thrilling (but tiresome) re-enactments of jaw-gnashing shark attacks and leaping great whites, this day is intended to celebrate these magnificent cartilaginous fish.
It is also a day to inspire action to save sharks from their imminent demise.
Sharks are among the oldest living lineage of species in the ocean, with fossil records dating back at least 420 million years ago. Modern-day sharks have been around for about 100 million years, predating the dinosaurs and even surviving them in the last major extinction event in the Miocene.
Yet today, 1/3 of species are threatened with extinction.
Films like Jaws and more modern popular programming inspire fear and perpetuate the myth that sharks are vicious cold-blooded killers. Of course few things are more awe inspiring than a great white shark in full predation mode, and we are fascinated by the thought of Megalodon, the world’s largest ever predatory fish that consumed swimming dinosaurs and whales, and which may have reached a whopping 60 feet long!
Many native societies, such as the Hawaiian culture who today offer sharks complete protection, have long revered and respected these magnificent marine predators. Unfortunately, our new cultural depictions of sharks on social media and in programs contribute to the fear and stigma surrounding them, and often reinforce a disregard for their importance and the threats facing them. Over the past 50 years shark numbers have declined by more than 70%, with an associated loss to the biodiversity and ocean ecosystems.