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Deep Six divers see sharks needing protection

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of November 17, 2011)
Photo of Corey Embree and Philippe Yersin.

Vero dive instructor and conservationist Corey Embree traces his interest in sharks to the first time he saw “Jaws,” the original summer action blockbuster that put Steven Spielberg on the map and scared a generation of movie-goers out of the water.

“I am not going to lie to you, I was so scared after seeing that movie, I was afraid to go swimming in a pool,” Embree says. “But out of that fear came fascination.”

Embree began to read about sharks and seek out people knowledgeable about the mysterious and apparently menacing creatures.

“My parents were great,” Embree says. “They bought me every book I asked for.”

As he studied the swift, predatory animals that play a critical role in ocean ecology, Embree learned most of the fear they generate results from misunderstanding, not fact. “The more I read, the more I learned they are not the creatures that are presented in the movies and sometimes in the media,” he says.

Embree, a former commercial diver and underwater welder, teaches classes today in shark conservation awareness at Deep Six Dive School. He recently took a group of 16 people on a series of shark dives in 60-foot water near Jupiter to demonstrate that sharks seldom threaten humans.

“We had a blast,” Embree says. “All the divers are still talking about it and I am still kind of giddy. We saw so many sharks and there were no issues at all. They were excellent dives. We have a lot of people waiting to sign up for the next trip.”

Embree and other employees at Deep Six are working with Project Aware, a worldwide divers group focused on ocean conservation, to gather signatures on a petition aimed at increasing protection for threatened shark species.

It turns out people are infinitely more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to people.

According to the International Shark Attack File maintained at the Florida Museum of Natural History, 15 people have been killed by sharks in 2011 – which is far more than usual – with almost all the deaths occurring in Australia and Africa.

There has not been a single fatal shark attack in United States this year.

During the same timeframe, people have killed more than 70 million sharks worldwide, many by the barbarous practice of “finning” in which fisherman hack off the dorsal fin and tail for use in a soup popular in China and throw the maimed living shark back into the water where it slowly dies by suffocation.

“Because of people’s misconceptions about sharks, whenever they see them, they want to kill them,” Embree says.

There are somewhere between 350 and 450 shark species in the world’s oceans, ranging from the dwarf lantern shark, which is less than a foot long at maturity, to the 35-foot-long whale shark.

Only a small percentage of species have ever attacked humans and most of those attacks – less than 100 worldwide in 2011 – are due to mistaken identity. Sharks other than great whites are not programed to eat anything as large as a person and most injuries occur when the animal mistakes a part of a person for legitimate prey.

A surfer’s foot dangling below a surfboard or a shiny metal fitting on a dive belt in murky water look enough like a fish to trigger attack. Other times, spear fishermen with bloody fish are hurt when sharks go after the catch.

“Many attacks could be prevented with just a little knowledge,” says Embree. “For instance, when you are swimming and see bait fish in the water, the mullet running or whatever, you probably should get out because you could get hurt by a shark that is feeding.”

Florida waters are home to dozens of shark species, including Caribbean Reef, Thresher, Tiger, Lemon, Nurse, Porbeagle and several kinds of Hammerhead.

Many of them have already been badly overfished.

“There is research that indicates the Hammerhead has declined by more than 50 percent in Florida waters,” says Florida Marine Fisheries Management spokesperson Amanda Nalley. “Sharks are apex predators and losing top predators is very bad for ecosystems in general.”

When apex predators disappear, it can start a deadly cascade that disrupts or destroys the biology of an entire region. The death of coral reefs in the Caribbean is an example.

When shark populations decline, large predator fish they feed on become more numerous and decimate the herbivorous fish below them on the food chain. With those fish gone or greatly diminished, algae and other plants that grow on reefs flourish to an extent that living coral polyps are overwhelmed and suffocated, killing the reef and destroying critical fish habitat. 

A growing worldwide coalition seeking to educate people and governments about the essential ecological function of sharks and stop the irrational slaughter of species threatened with extinction is having some success.

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in October outlawing the sale, trade and possession of shark fins, joining Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and Guam in a ban that closes U.S. Pacific ports to the shark fin trade.

"The practice of cutting the fins off of living sharks and dumping them back in the ocean is not only cruel, but it harms the health of our oceans," Brown wrote in a signing statement.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife commission was expected yesterday to increase protection for four types of sharks.

On the agenda is an amendment that would prohibit recreational and commercial harvest of Great, Scalloped and Smooth Hammerhead sharks and Tiger sharks in state waters, which extend three miles into the Atlantic and nine miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

“We can’t guarantee it 100 percent until the commissioners act, but we feel the amendment is likely to be approved,” says Nalley. “This proposal has had strong backing from the community. There has been a lot of positive talk about doing this. People have shown up at the meetings and sent messages of support.”

Whether government  actions come in time to save sharks, and perhaps the oceans, remains to be seen. Some shark species already have been reduced by as much as 90 percent according to marine experts. Because sharks are slow to reach sexual maturity and have relatively low reproductive rates it will take newly-protected populations many years to regain healthy numbers.

“I am trying to squash misconceptions about the species and educate people about sharks,” says Embree. “I just want people to know the facts. And it isn’t just me. Everyone at Deep Six is passionate about protecting sharks and the ocean.”

In his later years, Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel “Jaws” and co-wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s film, expressed deep regret at the part he played in demonizing sharks.

"In the 25 years since 'Jaws' was first released, sharks have experienced an unprecedented and uncontrolled attack," Benchley said in an interview before his death in 2006.

He swam with sharks himself and wrote two non-fiction books about sharks, in part to dispel the myth of the man-eater.

"Back then [when I wrote “Jaws”] it accepted by everybody that Great White sharks targeted human beings,” Benchley said.

"Now we know that Great White sharks, and indeed all sharks, avoid people, and 70 or 80 percent of the time if they bite a human being it's by accident and they spit the human being out.

“Sharks are much more victim than villain.”