Beware of Land Sharks

shark attack. AP

In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says to watch out for sharks – in the water and on land.

They would seem to be nothing more than very sad and very scary stories. Around the Fourth of July, a boy in Florida is attacked by a shark and nearly killed. Over Labor Day weekend, a 10-year-old boy dies from a shark attack in Virginia Beach and a shark off North Carolina's Outer Banks fatally attacks a young man and wounds his companion horribly.

But this is America, the land of opportunity. What opportunity could there possibly be in tragic deaths by shark, you may wonder. Well, for some commercial fisherman (and their petitioners), it was the perfect opportunity to get rid of government limits on commercial and recreational shark fishing. Little boys are being killed on our beaches because Big Brother has shark quotas, they argue.

Is this a great country, or what? Even the most microscopic special interests will use anything and everything as bait.

It started right after the July attack in Florida where an 8-year-old boy's arm was severed by a bull shark.

The National Review Online published an article called, "The Jaws of Government: Are the feds to blame for the shark attacks?" The story was written by Sean Paige of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank "dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government." For connoisseurs of anti-regulation, anti-mainstream science policy writing (if there are any), the piece is a classic.

For example, Paige puts the words "experts" and "scientists" in quotation marks when the people in question disagree with his thesis. He even quotes at length from an unnamed National Marine Fisheries Service scientist, who "spoke on the condition, as his views have not been well received with in NMFS." (I can hear the water cooler chatter over at NMFS – the agency that regulates commercial fishing – now: "Did ya hear? Dingeldorfer leaked the out-year black tip shark population projections to the National Review. There's blood in the water now.")

Paige argues that "shark attacks in the U.S. have increased dramatically since 1993 – which is when the federal government began mandating deep cuts in the number of sharks that could be caught for sport or profit."

It is very difficult to find a marine biologist or ichthyologist who concurs.

Limits were placed on the shark catch in 1993 for conservation reasons. The consensus was that the shark population was declining rapidly. Among the suspected causes: the movie "Jaws," which made recreational shark fishing popular; and U.S. commercial fishermen, who began supplying the Asian and domestic food markets with shark meat and fins for soup.

But cunting sharks in oceans is not easy or precise, as common sense would tell you. The shark population estimates generated by the NMFS have been challenged in court repeatedly by both sides. Commercial fishermen think the sharks are just fine; environmentalists believe the populations continue to diminish.

And besides, there is no proven link between the number of sharks and the number of shark attacks. In the 1970s, there was little shark fishing in the U.S. at all, shark populations were robust and there was no surge in shark attacks. People who closely study such things say the number of attacks probably has more to do with the number of humans at the beach than the number of sharks in the sea.

Furthermore, the scientists who monitor shark attacks at the Florida Museum of Natural History ("shark apologists," according to the National Review) say there is no worldwide increase in shark attacks anyway. In 1993, when the U.S. limits began, there were 14 fatal shark attacks in the world. There were six in 1998 and four in 1999.

For the record, Gordon Helm, spokesman for the NMFS said, "We don't see any correlation between shark attacks and shark management."

Statistics can be used to say all sorts of things. Not being a scientist, I won't even begin to take sides. That's not the point. You don't have to be a scientist to know that blaming fishing limits for these fatal shark attacks is simplistic propaganda and fear mongering. You don't even have to be a shark apologist or an environmental shark hugger to be appalled.

Yet the "shark limits kill people" argument is getting a lot of play. The Washington Times ran a story headlined, "Shark-fishing limits blamed for rash of attacks." It quoted Russell Hudson, spokesman for the Directed Shark Fishery Association: "I think shark populations are growing in the United States. I think conservation measures are working. And if you have more sharks interacting with people, it stands to reason you're going to have more people being hit."

Bob Spaeth of the Southern Off Shore Fishing Association puts it more bluntly: "Eat the shark before it eats you."

Sonja Fordham of the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group, said, "This is incredibly irresponsible. It's a play on public fear to further their own economic agenda." She also thinks it might work – that the binge of shark-fever might seriously undercut conservation. "I'm pretty concerned," she said.

On the other side, David Frulla, a Washington lawyer who represents some of the commercial fishermen, agrees that the recent attacks may well have an effect. "It could matter," he said, adding, "It's an odd way to get publicity."

All this can't help but remind me of the classic Saturday Night Live skit about the Land Shark. A ruthless and wily land shark impersonating a plumber or flower deliveryman would trick an unsuspecting, home-alone Gilda Radner or Jane Curtin into opening the door and then devour the poor maiden.

It's ise to beware of land sharks in politics, too.


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