Sharks, The News Cycle, And The Madness of Mobs


2011, Cancun Foros (; Cartoon Translation: Abelardo Vara (President of Cancun Hotel Association) says you have to kill sharks to avoid exposing Caribbean tourism. Vara: "These sharks are imbeciles attacking anything that stands between them and their food." Shark: "That's curious.... We think the same of you."

My life for the past few months has been all about sharks.  Mind you, I’m not complaining.  A confluence of opportunities has me building new shark-focused conservation components into some long standing work in three international project sites (more on one of these sites later).  Shark conservation and coral reef conservation are the peanut butter and chocolate of marine conservation… two much needed causes that work great together.

Healthy coral reef ecosystems attract and support abundant herbivore populations.  And abundant herbivores support abundant predators, including sharks.  So, healthy coral reefs help maintain healthy near shore shark populations.  And strong empirical evidence has demonstrated that healthy shark populations not only help maintain healthy coral reef ecosystems, but appear to have important oceanic food web dependencies.

But just when I think we may be rounding the curve on public perception of the importance of sharks, I’m reminded of how far we still have to go.

Shark photographed in surf immediately following Canadian swimmer receiving bites on leg and arm in Feb, 2011.

In February of this year, a Canadian woman vacationing in Cancun, Mexico, was bitten on the leg and arm while swimming just offshore from a resort hotel in Cancun’s Hotel Zone.  While some news agencies erroneously reported the woman lost her arm, the woman survived with all limbs attached despite blood loss and trauma to her thigh, foot, and arm from the bites (click here for a particularly graphic image of the extent of trauma to her leg). It is presumed that the shark species responsible was a Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas), a species known to congregate along the Mexican Yucatan coast each winter to reproduce.

© 2011, News BCM

In Late March, a Russian woman received a 20 cm bite on her leg after allegedly disregarding lifeguard warnings to stay out of the water after sharks were sighted in the surf in front of another Cancun resort hotel.  Various reports have circulated indicating that despite warnings the woman returned to the water  in an attempt to capture a photo of the shark.  A Cancun local I spoke to about the incident  while in Mexico said that the woman may have gotten caught between the shark and a lifeguard JetSki being used to “herd” the shark away from the shore.  Culpability aside, media latched on to this latest “attack” and Cancun, a global tourism destination, was under scrutiny to take proactive steps to combat this “wave of shark attacks.”

Cue scenes of local politicians meeting behind closed doors followed by fishermen–armed with fishing poles, guns, dynamite, harpoons, and buckets of chum–overloading small boats with a mandate to catch this “killer sharks.”  Okay, I’m making up the harpoons and dynamite part.  But all that was apparently missing was a soundtrack by John Williams.

The result?  The following grisly images trickled across my desk last week:

I received an email accompanying the images that reported the following:

…48 hours after the latest shark attack became news, in Puerto Juarez [a small port just north of the Cancun Hotel zone], fishermen received an encouraging “go ahead” to basically go out and kill sharks…  In only a few hours, a small fleet of fishermen from Cancun went up and down the coast and in this one outing it turned into a mass slaughter of sharks. By night, 19 hours later, in secrecy, in the Juarez port, they laid out 70 shark corpses, some of them females who were pregnant. The sharks had an average size of 2 meters, although some bigger ones were about 3 meters.

Was this the only solution?

Do the authorities involved in this matter deserve an applause for their quick response to fix this problem?

I don’t have any answers to these questions.  But I certainly plan to investigate what Mexican resource management authorities, the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP), the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), or the Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente, (PROFEPA) knew about this activity and what they plan to do to safeguard Mexico’s shark species in the future.

Stay tuned.

Cascading Effects of the Loss of Apex Predatory Sharks from a Coastal Ocean, Ransom A. Myers, et al. Science 315, 1846 (2007); DOI: 10.1126/science.1138657

Patterns and ecosystem consequences of shark declines in the ocean, Ferretti, et al. Ecology Letters, Vo 13 (8) 1055–1071 (2010); DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01489.x

Tip of the hat to Mike Neumann for improving my terrible Spanish translation of cartoon.

4 Replies to “Sharks, The News Cycle, And The Madness of Mobs”

  1. I have been going to Cancun for over a decade. According to statistics, one is more likely to be struck on the head, and killed, from a falling coconut, than one is likely to be eaten by a shark. All this being said, I highly recommend swimming with sharks, namely the worlds largest fish, whale sharks. You can do this from the Puerto Juarez ferry port that provides service between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. I would do this instead of traveling all the way to far off Isla Holbox, and wasting a complete day away from your resort. I learned about this trip and others over the years, and highly recommend Cancun and Playa del Carmen as family-friendly, couples and singles getaway vacation destinations. Sharks or no sharks, the Caribbean Sea is amazing, and it is wonderful to be able to be in a Mexican atmosphere, and in the lap of luxury, all at the same time.

    Safe Adventures and Travels,
    Deb S.

  2. Debbie…
    Thanks for the comment, but it’s off topic and a rather gratuitous redirect to a commercial site. As to your comment, “Sharks or no sharks, the Caribbean Sea is amazing, and it is wonderful to be able to be in a Mexican atmosphere, and in the lap of luxury, all at the same time”, I wholeheartedly disagree.

    The Caribbean is amazing as a tourism draw BECAUSE of it’s sharks, and coral reefs, and rainforests, and mangroves, and local communities who have relied upon all these healthy ecosystems long before there was tourism. This “lap of luxury” you enjoy so much is critically threatened.

    That was the point of this post.

  3. I love the Caribbean and never gave a second thought to Sharks until this year. I am going to Barbados and decided to read up on the Shark activity before I go swimming again. Thanks for the information.

  4. I find this article so saddening. Sharks only try to survive, they are not the vicious beasts everyone is making them out to be! Humans kill way more sharks, in the name of “protecting” ourselves and for sport then sharks kill humans for FOOD. I cannot believe that the fishermen would be allowed to destroy such amazing creatures in mass, out of fear and hatred.
    If sharks have been spotted in a tourist area or are known to frequent these areas then we need to take precautions for ourselves. By the sound of the attack on the Russian lady, it was her fault because she disregarded instructions for her safety.
    Shark numbers are quickly being diminished by humans, yet if another species did the same damage to us, we would eradicate it without thought. I have always been a lover of sharks and respect them, I wish other people would see that they are not as big of a threat as they have been made out to be in the past.
    Hopefully someone will come to their senses and stop the slaughter of these poor creatures.

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