Last week a leopard shark, limp and near death, washed ashore on a local beach in Monterey.
After being wrongly hooked and dragged through the water in a fight with a local fisherman, the shark was released, only to be pummeled by the tides, its ocean home suddenly an unforgiving onslaught.
My friend happened upon the shark and called me to see if I could help.
After a few phone calls and texts, we got in touch with the official organization in charge of stranded marine mammals, which then put us in touch with someone who could assist with other kinds of stranded ocean animals of the non-mammal variety.
My friend relayed the shark’s status to me via text with various emojis, among them a broken heart, a shark, and maybe even a fishing pole.
“What happens when you put the shark back in the water?” I asked.
“The tides just roll it over,” she said. “It’s too weak to swim.”
An hour later, the best they could do was preserve the carcass for the pelagic researchers who would perform a necropsy. Fishing was determined to be the cause of death, with mortal injuries sustained inside the shark’s body caused by the swallowed hook.
I text-shouted back to my friend, “THIS IS WHY I DON’T EAT FISH. Not worth the lives of our shark friends.”
While this leopard shark was one death of millions caused by the fishing industry, this one was especially insulting as it was most likely the victim of “sustainable” or “backyard” fishing where only a single hook and line were used by a single fisherman.
From the shark’s point of view, however, there’s nothing sustainable about being wrongly hooked, tethered, and dragged to one’s death after fighting for one’s life.
We’ve mentioned it before in our podcast, but global shark populations offer us 273 million reasons not to consume fish products, that number an estimate of global shark deaths caused by humans each year. Fishing itself is an industry that thrives on the deaths of, by some counts, literally trillions of individual fishes, in addition to hundreds of millions of sharks and hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales, and dolphins.
While sharks are also individually targeted for their fins, scientists can’t really decide which causes more shark deaths—finning or fishing. In fact, if you even attempt to google “number of shark deaths per year,” Google returns number of human deaths caused by “shark attacks.” By the way, that number is between 30 and 50 depending on the year, if you were curious.
At this point—does it even matter how many hundreds of millions of sharks are killed?
Let’s pretend that 273 million people were killed every year by some sort of very important and indispensable industry.
That’s equivalent to obliterating 91% of the United States’ human population.
In what world could we ever describe such a death toll other than genocide—a pointed, deliberate massacre of a nation?
And, it might be even worse that much of the time these shark deaths are considered accidental, also categorized as “bycatch” or “bykill.”
Never so close to disillusionment with humankind do I lean than when considering the squillions of animals we purposefully (and incidentally) kill each year. What does it mean?
It comes down to numbers, for me. It means that our choice to care—to end fishing and all animal exploitation—runs along a continuum from 0 to 273 million (in the case of sharks), and at any point along that line we can decide to make it stop simply by adopting a plant based diet. All plants contain plenty of protein, so when we choose to eat plants we actively eschew the violence inherent in killing and eating animals.
It really is as simple as that.
To learn more about the plight of sharks in our global ocean please consider checking out (and supporting) Madison Stewart, dive master and filmmaker, who has dedicated her life to advocating for these ancient predators.