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A guest blog from Cristina Zenato, Our View on Sharks

As Shark Week comes to a close I thought it would be the perfect time to share these words from Cristina Zenato, the founder of People of the Water, one of the nonprofits Shelby Reef supports. I hope you will keep her words with you every time you see a news story about sharks or watch Shark Week or any programming that tends to sensationalize and/or perpetuates the damaging myths about sharks. From Cristina...

Our view on sharks

The biggest problem for sharks is that people don't know very much about them. What they know are mostly myths. When most people think of sharks, they think of Jaws; sometimes, I think they hear the word shark and the soundtrack of the music. I have to admit that most modern work has still not done much to improve the view of sharks. I stand behind the fact that Jaws was a movie, and it should not take responsibility for changing sharks' fate. The humans who watched it created a real scenario in their minds. If Jaws created some damage, I feel that programs that could have helped change sharks’ public view have entirely missed the mark. Modern television has played on people's fears and emotions to trigger higher ratings, and revenue, without thinking about the final consequences towards the animals. They contradict themselves by regularly swimming and scuba diving with sharks, while verbally expressing the usual, annoying clichés and jokes about sharks. One of the first steps to understanding sharks is to stop collecting everyone under that simple word. Sharks are over 520 species, and they are so unique they cannot be categorized as one.

  Numerous people think of sharks as the or one of the most violent animals on the planet, although they have never had an encounter with one. Sharks are not violent. Like us and every other organism, sharks are built to live, reproduce, survive, and eat. They only eat when needed, they do not waste, and do not roam the oceans continually looking for food. Humans need to understand how sharks work. I think that humans don't like anyone else being more potent than them and being able to control an environment we have absolutely no power over. These animals put us in our place, surface a primordial fear we have secured away in our "safe" society to be eaten alive, and leave us feeling powerless. Our fear turns into anger and desire to destroy what makes us feel so vulnerable. The display of hunted sharks as a trophy is a powerful example of our need to be the arena's dominating animal.  If we want to know sharks and spend time with them, we need to foster a different attitude and continue to educate ourselves.

I believe we have to be humble and throw away human arrogance, the thought we deserve to do whatever we want, whenever we want and control everything. To get to know sharks, we need to change. We have to realize that there are times to be with sharks and times to elect to be out of the water, because we can, and they can't. That's their home, and we are the guests. Every shark species is different; there is a deep need to understand and respect sharks.

People who allow themselves to open up to a new and more realistic view of sharks realize that humans are violent, not animals. When sharks kill, it's for feeding and surviving. Some species may appear savage in their methodology in our eyes, but that's how nature has designed them for hunting and killing.  Sharks do not kill for pleasure, anger, revenge, or "sport." We do.

We must change our approach to sharks, review our preconceived notions, and admit that we had it incorrect.

We can do this; it can start with a simple trip to a small aquarium and noticing the different species of sharks in the habitats, some small, some big, some swimming, some motionless. Observing these sharks would challenge some of the concepts that are in our minds. We could further research and connect with people in the water with sharks, who work with them and can surface a personal experience. Ultimately, we could seek experiences for ourselves and submerge with these creatures; shark tourism is a vital component of shark conservation around the world. Small nations such as The Bahamas, Palau, Fiji, have recognized the economic value that shark tourism brings directly to the place and the indirect benefits brought to the economy thanks to the presence of sharks. Sharks are keepers of ecosystems' health. They are necessary to manage the food web, and their presence creates a positive waterfall effect on other industries, such as local fishing. Learning to co-exist with sharks, sharing their world, benefiting from their presence through knowledge and understanding can only help us protect a little more of this planet we all share and love.

By Cristina Zenato

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