Great White Shark

Photo: © Graham Lambert

The Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias, made infamous in Stephen Speilberg's Jaws, is the largest predatory fish. It is feared as a man-eater and is responsible for about 5-10 attacks a year. However, the Great Whites, like all sharks, are far more at danger from humans than the other way around.

These formidable sharks can grow up to 6m, and can reach speeds of 25 mph when in pursuit of prey. Their powerful teeth are triangular and serrated - and they can have as many as 3000. Ranging from the sub-Artic seas to the equator, they hunt fish, including other sharks, sea lions, seals, sea birds, small whales, turtles, porpoises and carrion.

Sharks have inhabited the world's oceans for around 400 million years - going back at least 100 million years before the first dinosaurs. Sadly, many species are now threatened with extinction. A recent study by Julia Baum at Dalhousie University in Canada reveals that the Great White, classified as Vulnerable by the 2000 IUCN Red List, has declined by 79 per cent. Many die through accidental entrapment in commercial fisheries and entanglement in anti-shark beach nets.

All other recorded shark species (with the exception of makos) have declined by more than 50 per cent in the last 8 to 15 years. According to WildAid, shark catches have risen from 622,908 tonnes in 1985 to over 800,000 million in 1998. A further 800,000 tonnes of shark catch may go unreported. Fuelling the feeding frenzy for the shark has been the explosion of the shark fin trade in the last decade. A bowl of shark fin soup can cost up to £70 ($100) in Hong Kong and 'finning' is now a common practice - with fishermen slicing off the fins and throwing the rest overboard to die (see, Sharks in the Soup).

More marine reserves would help boost their numbers since sharks are particular vulnerable to extinction as they are slow to reproduce. Sharks form vital service in maintaining the health of the marine ecosystems and their losses are causing other fish stocks to collapse, as secondary predators are not kept in check.

The Great White Shark, at least, is now protected by national legislation in South Africa, Namibia, California, Florida, all of Australia and Malta. It is afforded regional protected status in all eastern US coastal states, in the Mediterranean Sea under the Barcelona Convention (1993) and in Brazil.

Sources: BBC Nature and The Guardian.

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