Sharks vs. humans at play: Which side are we on?

I went swimming over the weekend at the same ocean beach in Wellfleet where the young man was killed by a shark last September. I had been thinking that, given the shark situation, I could eliminate ocean swimming from my recreation menu. But it was day two of the heat wave and the lowtide 2-4 foot waves were so inviting that I ended up wading in deep enough to catch waves. There were board paddlers and swimmers a lot farther out. Seals, said to attract sharks, were cruising by. There had been beach closings in adjacent towns in recent days.

It’s shark season. A new way of looking at summertime. Shark sightings, beach closings. I can’t say that it seems to be discouraging summer crowds, as feared (by some, hoped by others). I suppose at s ome point we’ll see some actual figures about the effect on summer rentals and other businesses.

Since last year’s fatal attack there has been considerable disagreement about the appropriate response. A vocal constituency demands action to reestablish priority of human recreation in the waters around us, including calls to repeal the 1972 law which protects seals, resulting in their proliferation which has drawn the sharks. Meanwhile local government has been inclined to take a more defensive stance.

Two shark-related stories on a recent front page of this paper illustrate the current situation. One story concerns our big shark problem and Wellfleet’s measures to warn people about it and enable faster response in case of attack. Directly above that story is one titled “Sharks and Seals: A Success Story,” in which environmentalists, far from lamenting the proliferation of seals and sharks, are happy about it.

. “We need these species. They’ve been gone too long and their restoration should be celebrated,” says a University of Vermont professor.

He mentions other “wildlife achievements of the 20th century, like a 500-percent increase in grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park and the restoration of the American alligator in Florida.” I recently read a New York Times story about grizzlies killing people in British Columbia; and a friend who lives in northern Florida laments that in blazing Florida summer there’s no place for a human to swim because of all the occasionally man- and woman- eating alligators.

We are probably the only predator in history making a species decision not to prey. A strong cultural movement favors reining in our instincts, seeing ourselves less a member of the animal kingdom than a manager of it. We do this not entirely out of godlike altruism, but recognizing that on the whole we are better off as a species if (given our great success as a predator)we don’t follow our instinctive preying to its logical conclusion and spare at least some others.

Maybe it’s just a sense that it would feel lonely without other species: that it feels better being us if there are more of them, even if every once in a while one of them eats one of us.

Of course, as the same article points out, we are still, despite the vogue for ecology mindedness, eliminating other species at a record rate. “A gloomy United Nations report last month predicted that 1 million species are faced with extinction in the coming decades and that 66 percent of the ocean had been significantly altered by humans.”

Our species success as alpha predators is only now being acknowledged with the dubious title of “6th extinction,” of having the effect on the world’s creatures that the asteroid had on dinosaurs 50 million years ago.

Thoreau 170 years ago found a Cape Cod in which people didn’t swim in the surf for the sensible reason that there were too many sharks. As much as he of Walden Pond liked a nice swim in the surf, he expressed no desire to redesign nature to suit his .recreational proclivities.


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