Dear Media, Stop Covering Shark Derbies/Rodeos – National Oceans Month, Part 4.

This is how I like to see sharks – in the wild, doing shark-y things.

My favorite thing about shark pups is how they are more or less the same from the moment they are born to the day they die. There are, of course, important physiological and behavioral differences, but from an aesthetic point of view, they’re just… smaller (and dare I say, cute?).

This is how I do NOT like to see sharks (from the website BNQT, apparently associated with USA Today – and used under the Fair Use Doctrine):

Epic battle with giant thresher shark could be one for the record books

Oh, well if it’s “one for the record books”, this is totally OK.

Spoiler alert: It’s not.

First off, the shark pups in Annie Guttridge’s posts are lemon sharks, which are facing their own challenges in the Bahamas, and the one hanging by its tail is a thresher shark.  The thresher shark is one of my favorite sharks, and the subject of one of my first shark poems.  From “At 1400 Fathoms“:

Our tails, long and agile,
used to flick prey
directly to our mouths –
a mere parlour trick for the mermaids;
the true skill of the fisher-fish
is to round up whole schools –
shad and herring
mullet and cod –
leaving behind only a glittering rain of scales.
We are simple,
not without elegance. ”

They’re unique in the shark world, with only 2 (possibly 3) extant species, and because humanity sucks, they’re one of the 24% of all elasmobranch species facing extinction today (from the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global body that acts as a intermediary of governments to share information on an animal’s conservation status and help create solutions for preservation):

Vulnerable.  One step below Endangered, and because of that delineation (backed up by a NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service study that some felt understated the impact of both commercial and recreational fishing), it’s still allowed to be fished in Federal waters and most state waters.   As some species have been given government protections (like the great white shark), anglers have been turning their attention to other species, and their numbers are now steadily declining (like the mako shark).

So here, we have a thresher shark hoisted for your viewing pleasure. “It was an amazing sight,” said the fisherman who hooked, shot the shark the death, and dragged it to shore.  “… I would do it all the same if I had to do it again” he also remarked.

Now, what other animals are listed as “vulnerable” by the  IUCN?   PandasManateesAfrican Elephants. So, ask yourself, as a nature lover, if you’re not cool with seeing a panda dragged from its environment by a rope and given a coup d’grace with a shotgun, why’s it OK with Mr. Thresher Shark?

Seriously. All the flavor comes from the chicken broth and mushrooms anyway, so you might as well order Hot and Sour soup. Come to Arizona and I’ll take you to the Canton Dragon – which serves the best Hot and Sour soup in Arizona. (cartoon by Anju Sabu of – used with permission)

But that’s an emotional appeal.  What’s the scientific problem with fishing for threshers?  Well, as with most sharks, they have long gestation period, take a long time to reach sexual maturity, and as a pelagic (open water) shark, the young are vulnerable to predation by other species of shark, orcas, and billfish (marlin, swordfish, etc.).  The Asian market’s jones for shark fin soup doesn’t help the thresher shark either – because of their unique tails, they are a targeted species by fisheries looking to supply their fins to the fishmongers .  You also might say “hey, these recreational fishermen aren’t the real villains here – it’s the commercial shark fishing, and especially IUU fishing (Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing)!”  You know what, you’re sort of right.  Commercial shark fishing, by-catch, and IUU fishing are far more damaging to shark populations than recreational fishing but… in this analysis of the 2013 NMFS fisheries report by David Shiffman of Southern Fried Science, he was able to to determine that more LARGE sharks were killed by recreational fishers than commercial fishers (see the landed thresher shark above).   It’s an additional pressure that sharks simply don’t need.

And this goes across the political spectrum.  I dragged Donald Trump Jr. when he “caught and released” a black-tip shark, and I did it on Twitter to NY Governor Mario Cuomo:

In this case, though, it’s sports journalism that’s reporting on these things without the critical eye of science.  The Pete Thomas article in BNQT at no point makes any comment about the science regarding the concerns scientists and conservationists have about thresher sharks, or how the rodeo or derbies are becoming more controversial as the public perception and acceptance of them changes.  Indeed, such heavy hitters like Caterpillar, Goslings Rum, and Lexus pulled out of sponsoring the 2017 Brett T. Bailey Shark Rodeo, per the Blue Planet Society because of public outcry.

And Pete Thomas seems like someone who really appreciates the ocean.  His Twitter feed has videos of sharks, the banner is a pod of jumping dolphins…  Does USA Today demand uncritical click-bait because of the political climate and phantoms of “political correctness”?   I don’t get it.  If click-bait’s what the media is after, there’s plenty of live shark click-bait out there, just waiting to be linked to. If you absolutely must cover them, because your editor is a real J. Jonah Jameson-type, emphasis on the Jonah, demanding “I NEED PICTURES OF SHARK DERBIES, PARKER!!!”, then maybe slip some science in.   It’s not hard to find.  In fact, you should probably just assume the shark you see in the picture is on the IUCN Red List, google it, and see what the shark’s conservation story is.

And really, are shark derbies really where we’re at in 2018?  It seems like we should be better than gawking at a dead animal, hoisted up by the tail while the slack-jawed yokels gawk at what was once a brilliant, vibrant animal.

Be better, media.

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