College of Liberal Arts

Predators Turned Prey: A History of Human and Shark Entanglements

Fri, Jul 21, 2017
More than 60 percent of sharks are threatened or endangered by human activity.
More than 60 percent of sharks are threatened or endangered by human activity.

Shark Week brings all sorts of shocking—and horrifying — spectacles to viewers. This year, audiences were promised the first-ever man versus shark swim off, where 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps will face off against “one of the fastest and most efficient predators on the planet,” a great white. 

But, perhaps, what’s more shocking is the steep decline in shark populations over the last half century and the potential and significant impacts it could have on marine ecosystems.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nearly one third of the 881 species of chondrichthyans — sharks, rays and chimaeras — range from threatened to critically endangered; and 62 percent of the 176 shark species monitored by the IUCN are threatened or endangered by fishing and finning, the latter of which surely escalated when China lifted shark fin soup from the list of extravagances that had been forbidden in 1987. 

But according to University of Texas at Austin Distinguished Teacher and American studies professor Janet Davis, humans and sharks have a long and intense history; and with it, the roles of the hunter and the hunted have certainly evolved.

“In thinking about sharks, I got to thinking about longer histories of human-shark entanglements, and how we can think about our changing relationship to the ocean through these entanglements over the centuries,” Davis says. 

Read the full story on the Life & Letters website and learn more about Davis' research in the video below.


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