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By Suzannah Evans,

Every summer, familiar headlines creep into the news: stories of sharks terrorizing beaches around the world, sending swimmers racing for shore with the ominous display of a dorsal fin.

The shark’s reputation as a killer was sealed in the public imagination with the 1975 release of Jaws, a movie with imagery so powerful that the original book’s author devoted the rest of his life to dismantling the character he had helped create. The shark in Jaws was a brutal, instinctive killer with a dozen rows of jagged teeth and a taste for human flesh. The bloodthirsty great white has become an archetype so pervasive that even a news story reporting on a harmless two-foot sand shark can’t resist recalling the Jaws mythos.

The reality of shark attacks, however, is that they are few and far in between. Out of hundreds of shark species, only the great white, tiger, bull and oceanic whitetip sharks have been involved in many unprovoked attacks. Since 2003, sharks have killed four people a year on average, according to the International Shark Attack File. That puts your risk of being killed by a shark at 1 in 264 million.

Sharks may not be the relentless killers they’re made out to be, but there is still a victim in shark-human interaction. Humans kill more than 100 million sharks a year, resulting in a steep decline in shark populations around the world.

The biggest threat tosharks stems from an Asian delicacy that has grown exponentially in popularity in recent years: shark fin soup. Often presented at weddings, this thin soup is seasoned with shark fin as a traditional flourish; the fin adds no flavor or nutritional value. Unfortunately for sharks, slaughter for their fins results in an inglorious death: fins sliced off, the sharks are often thrown overboard to die. Shark finning is illegal in many nations, but that doesn’t stop fishermen from killing up to 73 million sharks a year for their fins.

Millions of other sharks are killed annually for meat or a liver oil called squalene that is used in cosmetics, or as incidental bycatch as fishing ships set lines and nets for other seafood species.

Sharks are a vital part of a healthy ocean. Much like wolves in the western United States or tigers in Asia, the presence of sharks indicates a working ecosystem that is healthy at all levels, from microscopic phytoplankton on up the food chain. Sighting a shark, then, should be less a cause for concern than for celebration. Although it wouldn’t hurt to, you know, give it a little room.

Shark myths and facts

  • Myth: Sharks are hungry man eaters looking for any chance to attack.
  • Fact: Sharks have no desire to eat humans. Most of the "attacks" on humans are a mistake, which is why there are so many more bites than fatalities. There are around 350 species of sharks, but white, tiger and bull sharks are the species responsible for the majority of all attacks.
  • Myth: Sharks are all the same.
  • Fact: The reality is just the opposite. Shark species are very different in size, appearance, habitat, diet and behavior. The typical "Jaws" vision is far from thenorm.

  • Myth: Shark attacks are on the rise.
  • Fact: An individual’s risk of a shark attack has not increased. With more people swimming, diving, surfing and boating in waters where sharks live, there are more people interacting with sharks.
  • Myth: Since sharks provide an economic value through their many products, you might as well use them while you can.
  • Fact: Sharks are actually worth more alive than dead, since tourists pay huge sums of money to dive with sharks. Their position in the ecosystem helps regulate economically important seafood fisheries below them in the food chain.
  • Myth: Sharks are unintelligent creatures with walnut-sized brains.
  • Fact: Sharks can exhibit complex social behavior and they have brain-to-body ratios similar to birds and mammals.
  • Myth: Shark fins are tasty, nutritious, and full of medicinal properties.
  • Fact: Shark fins offer no flavor or nutritious value.  In fact, as apex predators, sharks accumulate the toxic contaminants, especially mercury, of the animals below them in the food chain.
  • Myth: Shark fins grow back.
  • Fact:  If a shark is thrown overboard without its fins, it will not survive.
  • Myth: Sharks don’t get cancer.
  • Fact: Studies have shown sharks do in fact get cancer.  Consuming shark products will not prevent cancer fromoccurring in humans.
  • Myth: Sharks have no predators.
  • Fact: Humans are the greatest threat to sharks, killing up to 100 million sharks a year.

Related Orbitz resources:

Suzannah Evans is senior editor, communications, for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization.

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