While on average four people each year are killed by sharks, over 100,000 sharks are killed by humans.
In fact, 32 percent of open ocean sharks, including the scalloped hammerhead and the whale shark, have been hunted in such high numbers that they are now in danger of going extinct.
These are some of the facts behind ocean conservationist William McKeever’s new book “Emperors of the Deep: Sharks—the Ocean’s Most Mysterious, Most Misunderstood, and Most Important Guardians” (HarperOne, 2019) and his documentary film “Emperors of the Deep.” The book and documentary have been endorsed by Greenpeace.
McKeever will be on hand in Chatham on July 5 to show a 20-minute outtake from the film, which will be released in full next year. He will also speak, answer questions, and sign copies of the book.
McKeever, who lives in New York City, is no stranger to Cape Cod, as he has close family members in Yarmouth. And he is well aware of the surge of great white sharks off the coast of Chatham in recent years.
“If you take some precautions, everything will be fine,” McKeever said in a telephone interview last week. He applauds the local shark tourism business.
McKeever previously worked in finance. One weekend he happened to visit Montauk, Long Island during a shark tournament, and he was revolted by what he saw as the cruelty foisted upon sharks—sharks that were caught not for food but for sport.
“There were bloody sharks everywhere,” he says. “It got me on this journey.” He spent two years on the sea, including many days on Greenpeace’s “Rainbow Warrior” ship, to research the book and film. In his book, he interviews a wide variety of people involved with sharks including scientists, ship’s captains, a surfer attacked by a shark and the self-described “last great shark hunter.”
McKeever is now on a quest to protect sharks and, by extension, the oceans, which need sharks as a part of the ecosystem to stay healthy. Earlier this year McKeever founded the non-profit Safeguard the Seas. The aim of his work is to raise awareness of the importance of sharks to the ocean’s ecosystem.
And why is it so important that sharks not go extinct?
They’re a vital part of the ecosystem, needed to keep the reefs and seagrasses healthy, McKeever says. Sharks are apex predators, at the top of the food pyramid. Sharks keep populations of fish species in balance. Once you remove the apex predators, other fish will overpopulate. For example, parrot fish use their beaks to scrape algae from the reefs. Without sharks, fish that prey on parrot fish will overpopulate. And as the parrot fish population diminishes, the reefs become covered with algae.
In the film, McKeever is shown diving in the Bahamas as sharks swim around him. He is not protected by a shark cage. He admits that he was nervous before he took the dive. But once he got down among the sharks, his tension dissipated. In fact, his assistant had to take fish from a tube, put it on a skewer and hold it out to attract the sharks. His camerawoman was also there, diving without a cage.
“They were just curious—who was the guy?” he recalls. “It was a wonderful, spiritual experience communing with them. They’re really not the aggressive man-eaters.”
He came away from the experience feeling very differently about sharks. Earlier, he had “bought into” the “Jaws” movie and the idea that “when you swim out there somehow they’re watching us.
“‘Jaws’ was a real turning point,” he adds. “It created almost a hysteria that sharks were out to get us.”
Forty-four years after “Jaws,” our perception of sharks is changing. While low numbers of people are attacked or killed by sharks on an annual basis, somehow the image we have of shark attacks is more terrifying than that of people driving their cars into deer. An average of 30 people annually are killed that way in the U.S., McKeever tells us in “Emperors of the Deep.” Even ants kill 30 people a year. McKeever says many attacks on surfers and kayakers occur because sharks have poor eyesight, particularly on overcast days, and sometimes rake their mouths over the surfboard or kayak to determine what it is. This is, naturally, disconcerting for the surfer or boater.
McKeever is calling for laws to end shark tournaments. He also wants laws changed so that shark fins, which sell for as much as $300 per pound, can no longer be shipped around the U.S., something he calls “unconscionable.”
He is also calling on a U.N. treaty that says resources in the Pacific such as tuna, fish and sharks belong to all mankind. “Let’s provide protection.” He wants an international agreement to prevent overfishing, particularly long-lined fishing that “acts like a vacuum cleaner, sucking out everything in the ocean.”
McKeever will speak at the Eldredge Public Library in Chatham on Friday, July 5 at 1 p.m. The event is sponsored by Where the Sidewalk Ends Books and proceeds will go toward the Chatham Shark Center.