For the love of sharks
TIM WINTON HAS CAMPAIGNED for turtles, dugongs, dolphins and whales. The award-winning writer and avid marine conservationist is now calling for an end to what he’s calling our “jihad” against sharks.
“Australians have an almost supernatural fear and hatred of sharks,” he says. “We don’t have [many] land-based carnivores. You need a devil, a Satan, a bogeyman. The shark is it.
“Consciously or unconsciously we’ve made the shark the infidel. It’s the creature to which we license ourselves to do everything unspeakable.”
Tim was speaking ahead of a trip to Melbourne where he will lend his name to a campaign by the Marine Conservation Society, of which he is a patron, to raise awareness of the plight of sharks.
Sharks are at the forefront of the imminent collapse of global fisheries, with some species, such as the hammerhead, already 89 per cent gone. Australia, he says, is complicit in their threatened demise.
CONSUMERS, ESPECIALLY IN MELBOURNE, are being conned by being sold shark meat, marketed as “flake”, he says, when they thought they were getting fish and chips. “When people go and eat fish and chips they don’t know they’re eating shark and chips,” he says. “They’re eating a completely unsustainable product and it doesn’t taste like fish.”
He describes shark ‘finning’ as a barbarity on par with practices like harvesting bile from bears. “Basically the shark’s caught, the fin’s removed while it’s alive and it’s returned live to the water. The equivalent to that is capturing an elephant, cutting its legs off and letting it go.”
Tim says that like most other Australians, he grew up with the traditional “fear and loathing” of sharks. He was surprised when, as a boy of 11, he saw his first live shark in a tank. “It was a poor, moth-eaten grey nurse shark … with snaggly teeth, a pot belly and a blotchy complexion and it look pretty miserable.
“It looked like a 10 pound pom looking for a warm pint,” he says. “It wasn’t very threatening.”
HE PINPOINTS HIS AWAKENING to when he was 13 and living in Albany, Australia’s last land-based whaling town. “I was a 13-year-old boy seeing dead sperm whales being dragged up onto the flensing deck,” he says. “So there I am seeing a 40-foot (12.2-metre) sperm whale have its head sawn off with a steam saw and [I’m thinking] this is a ridiculous piece of vandalism.
“On the same day I’m feeling outraged on behalf of the sperm whale I’m seeing all these sharks in the water, there’s all this meat and blood in the water, it’s like a vision of hell.”They’re being shot, and we’re cheering. We were like these primitive savages.”
He’s since swum with sharks, and learnt to “unlearn” his fears and appreciate the unique beauty of the fish. But Winton, a keen surfer, admits it can be dangerous to enter a shark’s territory, but says our fears need to be put into perspective.
“I’m conscious of it and I’m alert, but only in the same way that when I go driving. I’m always aware that there’s some knucklehead who’s going to run a red light or chop into my lane.
“Statistically you’ve got a higher chance of being hit by a car or die from a bee sting than have by being bumped by a shark.”
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See a video interview with Tim Wintow below (Credit: SlowTV)