In 1975, a movie called Jaws swam silently into movie theaters. The flick was a loose retelling of the Jersey Shore shark attacks, when either a rouge great white shark or a combination of various sharks attacked five New Jersey beachgoers back in 1916. Jaws became a box-office legend, a low-budget film which netted half a billion dollars… and it took a big bite out of tourism.

That summer, very few people went to the beach. Shark hunting competitions were even held to eliminate the seas of the “fearsome beasts”. After watching Jaws many years later, I still occasionally glance behind when I dive just to check if Bruce (yes, the shark had a name) is there. Heck, I sometimes half open my eyes in swimming pools just to be sure.

So what’s the real story behind sharks and shark attacks? In 2014, three people were fatally attacked by sharks. Scary, but here’s something scarier.

In the same year, people slaughtered anywhere from 50 to 100 million sharks, according to a 2013 report for Marine Policy. Caught for their meat, liver, and especially their fins, as many as 200 sharks die every minute – most of the killing done in the open sea, away from public eyes. And because of all this hunting, most Pinoys will never see a shark in the wild. This seems strange because the country is possibly the richest in terms of marine biodiversity – but not when we understand the state of local shark populations.

At least 95 of the world’s 465 shark species swim in Philippine waters – but only 14 species are protected by national law.

Caught in the Crossfire

The basking, oceanic whitetip, whale, great white, silky, plus all types of saw, thresher, and hammerhead sharks have protection outside marine parks. The rest – from juvenile blacktip sharks sold live in Cartimar to bamboo catsharks peddled for food along Macapagal Boulevard (I documented one being killed and it went viral early this year) – are still being taken.

Though direct shark hunting is horrible, the greatest global killer of sharks is a phenomenon called bycatch, or the unintended capture of non-target species, which, according to a 2009 study by R. Wayne Davies and colleagues published in the journal Marine Policy, accounts for up to 40 percent of annual global fish hauls.

Devices called tuna longlines, in particular, sport as many as tens of thousands of baited hooks waiting to snag and drown everything from tuna to turtles to sharks. The reduction of the once vast schools of prey like sardines and mackerel also leaves our seas less hospitable for Bruce and friends.

Saving Sharks

But there’s good news for sharks as we end 2018. A group called Save Sharks Network is fighting to protect sharks in the country. The Shark, Ray, and Chimaera Conservation Act was passed in the lower house last September and aims to protect not just the country’s 95 shark species, but all local species of sharks, rays, and chimaeras.

Save Sharks Network is comprised of environmental nonprofits like Greenpeace Philippines, Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, and Save Philippine Seas, and is supported by Best Alternatives and other shark-loving groups.

“Greenpeace is happy to announce that all efforts to conserve and sustainably utilize sharks and rays is moving. Our bill breezed through the lower house. It is important for the Senate to ensure that the bill is made into law before session’s end this year,” says Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner Vince Cinches. “With new species being discovered, humans must play a crucial part for the future of sharks. The government, nonprofits, businesses, and individuals are key. We urge readers to talk to their representatives, particularly in the Senate, and to sign our online petition to finally pass the Shark, Ray, and Chimaera Conservation Act.”

This appeared in Animal Scene’s November 2018 issue.