Sharkocalypse Now

Welcome to environmental Guernica. Here be waters teeming with sharks and discursive thoughts. And worse: Homo sapiens and their deadly opposable thumbs. Swim at your own risk.



Shark Week is over. Wasn’t that nice? Let us return to our regularly scheduled destruction of our Little Blue Planet.



In 2011, ‘sharkologist’ Christopher Neff suggested in a piece for the New Scientist that it was high time we stopped using the term “shark attack” and adopt a more accurate term that reflects the fact that shark-human predation is about as normal as a Republican-led bill for environmental caretaking.


Unfortunately, despite widespread epistemic dissemination of the near-harmlessness of sharks to our species, Neff has not proceeded to lead a successful linguistic revolution. As proof, conduct a Google News search of “shark attack” and witness how many media organizations have ignored Neff’s lead.


Ah, come on. Media producers have to feed their kids, too.


Planet Money should do a story about how much media revenue is generated annually by stories inspired by the misguided appetites of cartilaginous fish. (Or elasmobranchs, as Ms. Lovier Jackman graciously reminds me.)


I bet it’s a lot. But I bet it pales in comparison to the revenue generated by the more than 40 million sharks that were slaughtered last year so that Asian cuisine lovers everywhere could indulge in fin soup.



Following more than a quarter-century of Shark Week, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that (a) Peter Benchley ultimately regretted demonizing the great white shark, and (b) sharks don’t like the taste of human flesh. That is, if a shark happens to taste-test a human being, odds are it was momentarily confused that the hominid in-question was a juicy harbor seal morsel.


Am I the only one who finds it ironic that human beings, despite all their food-chain superiority, apparently taste like shit? Must be all that processed cheese.



According to National Geographic, only 5 people die from shark attacks annually.


Hmm. Forty million sharks. Five humans. 40,000,000. 5.


Mr. Neff, if you’re listening, perhaps we should start employing the term “Hominid Attack.”


For every global shark-related hominid death, 2,215 Americans alone are gunned into their graves. PER YEAR!


In other words, one should be far more worried about a Tea Party madman showing up at the local Starbucks with a Glock than by a cyclone happening to deposit a caffeine-starved bull shark on the premises. (By the way, where’s a sharknado when you really need one?)


If you think that’s depressing, take the National Geographic Ocean Quiz. When you’re done with that, move on to the Seafood Quiz, the Ocean Issues Quiz and the truly smiley face-engendering Global Warming Quiz.


Now visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s list of endangered/threatened/emergency species. Just how big is this list? Scrolling as fast as I could with my mouse wheel, it took a full minute to get from top to bottom on the webpage.


That’s not even the half of it. For whatever reason, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service list does not mesh with the list of vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered species cited by the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN “Critically Endangered” list for sharks alone includes the Pondicherry Shark, the Dump Gulper Shark, the Ganges Shark, the New Guinea River Shark, the Irrawaddy River Shark, the Natal Shyshark (shyer by the minute, apparently), the Daggernose Shark, the Striped Smooth-Hound Shark, the Sawback Angelshark, the Smoothback Angel Shark and the Angel Shark.


And those are just the sharks! For a look at ray species that are quickly disappearing on account of snake oil Asian soup, have a gander at this IUCN-inspired webpage.


Man, wasn’t that Shark Week Volkswagen Beetle Convertible submarine commercial cool? Oh, wait did you say something about a gigantic list of critical, top-shelf predator species disappearing from our universe forever?


I had better stop before I get to the really depressing oceanic news. Oh hell. Why stop now?


How have times changed? When I was growing up, Santa lived on a safe and secure ice ledge somewhere near the North Pole. A few months ago, my five-year-old daughter learned about the plight of the polar bear while reading a library book. Of course, the first thing she asked me about was the state of Santa’s Shop. I tried not to make it sound like Jolly St. Nick and Mrs. Claus were swimming haplessly in the Arctic Ocean with the few remaining polar bears on our planet, but I’m not sure she was buying it.


Sorry, I don’t mean to ruin your day. But the fact is, with the exception of my nod to Santa Claus, every word above is connected to an environmental reality that is so monumentally woeful, about all one can do is succumb to a natural instinct to repress it all.


Quick, hand me that remote so I can find something mindless. Ah, Nick at Nite. Would you mind passing the Cheetos?


It would seem that unless a significant percentage of human beings are willing to offer themselves as Malthusian sacrificial lambs on behalf of our planet, Philip K. Dick’s future vision of an Animal-less Planet seems less and less science fiction every day.


And, yes, I am aware that the previous paragraph is likely to result in the smallest altar call response in history.



If this essay feels a bit disjointed at this point, that is the point. Sharkocalypse draweth nigh.



I’ve been writing columns for the majority of my adult life. Writing a successful column is a simple formula, really. You identify a problem. You expound upon the problem. Then you present general solutions that direct the reader toward an Aristotelian catharsis.


Ta-da! Everyone leaves the page happy.


But I see no visible remedy for this problem.


Collective humanity, as it turns out, is a pretty lousy caretaker of the only planet known to contain a natural environment for maintaining genetic code.


But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the Center for Biological Diversity’s synopsis: “Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years.”


My translation:


Doctor: Sorry, but it appears you have Planetary Glioblastoma Multiforme.


Citizens of Earth: Sounds bad, doc. How much time do we have?


Doctor: Well, you’ll be dead any minute, at least epochally speaking. So will all of your pets. But you will leave behind quadrillions of single-cell organisms that still have plenty of time to mutate once again into sentient beings. Hopefully not apes next time. Lousy choice, that. Maybe the next wave of intelligent beings will spend more time studying philosophy and mathematics and less time photographing women in bras and concocting Velveeta dip recipes.



From plankton to sharks, our planet’s oceans are in deep shit. No better is the state of wildlife on terra firma.


Yet a major percentage of the U.S. voting public doesn’t believe there’s a problem!


And globally, so many tens of millions of people are just trying to scrape by a subsistence existence that a concern for wildlife ecosystems probably comes across as genocidal wishful thinking.


Granted, overall we do care about the environment quite a bit more than our predecessors. But the average progressive—myself included—still craves a $3.50 gallon of gasoline and burgers that gobble up global grain supplies.


Remember when you crossed that line as a pre-teen and dropped the F-bomb in front of your parents?


Well, that’s what we’ve done, only we have fucked our planet.


And just like that slippery F-bomb from our youth, once it’s out there, it’s out there for good.


Caring about the environment is nice. Stopping Sharkocalypse is something different entirely.



My God, you’re right. That’s just awful. Now please pass the popcorn so I can finish watching Expendables 2.



And so we arrive to that point where I am compelled to present the reader with something resembling catharsis. Otherwise, the angry media gods will drive me into Columnist Abaddon.


1. Please support your local Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited institutions.


A few weeks ago, I took my daughter to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta to behold the magisterial phenomenon of a 6.5 million-gallon tank that contains four whale sharks, four giant manta rays and a host of other scintillating saltwater creatures, from sawfish to goliath grouper.


I was mesmerized. I could have pitched a tent in the Ocean Voyager Exhibit and spent the better part of my remaining years just watching the whale sharks run their calm circular circuit.


The only personal wildlife experience that even remotely compares to this day was the time I fed apples to one of the six remaining Northern White Rhinos on our planet. Come to think of it, the time I surreptitiously thumb-wrestled a gorilla at Como Zoo in Minnesota was pretty cool, too.


These experiences, plus hundreds of other positive encounters with wildlife from the world over, all occurred at AZA-accredited zoos or aquariums.


Zoos have come a long ways since the bare-bone-yellow-cage days of my youth. The philosophy of providing sacrificial wildlife residents of zoological gardens with a semblance of a natural habitat was only just starting to kick in when I was a tot.


People also tend to forget that zoos and aquariums engage in critical international managed breeding programs. Without public access to the end results of such programs, I doubt there would be momentum to perpetuate them.


Yet some peopleeven some governments—now argue that zoos should be shut down. In my opinion, if that ever happens, you can kiss goodbye to the last chance humanity ever had to spread universal empathy for species other than cats, dogs, hamsters and whatever other animals we domestically invite into our homes. Plus sharks, which are only invited into our homes one week per year.


2. The Norwegian Nobel Committee should introduce an annual Prize for Environmental and Wildlife Studies.


If Thorbjørn Jagland and his friends ever get around to this, I would like to nominate wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen as the first awardee. Enough said.


3. Here are a couple of “here’s how you can make a difference” environmentally-conscious websites:


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


American Museum of Natural History




Pacific Gas & Electric



But going to zoos, handing out global prizes and “doing our part” isn’t enough to prevent the pending Sharkocalypse. And we all know it. Everyone except Rand Paul, that is.



The only real solution I envision for the future of wildlife and ecosystems—and, let’s face it, humanity itself—is if a President of the United States were to roll up his or her sleeves and do something that no President has done since the days of Camelot: present our nation with an imperative to perform the impossible.


My Fellow Americans,


Top to bottom, the world is an environmental hellhole. Those who came before us—and nearly all the rest of us presently breathing—made it this way.


The only way to stave off the pending Sharkocalypse is to devote all of our resources and our national ingenuity to fixing the problem.


We will combine our national effort with other nations throughout the globe. We will work with our global partners hand in hand, and we will not stop until the work is complete.


From this moment on, we are going to discontinue inventing ways to blow ourselves to bits. I intend to transform the military industrial complex into a servant of exploration and preservation of our magnificent planet. From now on, we will invest our vast resources to this end.


We cannot allow the fate of Easter Island to befall us as a planet.


We will become the caretakers of Planet Earth as we are meant to be.


Now let’s get to work.



Despite their inviolable personalities, sharks everywhere would be grateful.


{Originally published on the website Forward Progressives on August 12, 2013. The website recently closed down without maintaining an archive. The original article received more than 100,000 views.}


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