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April 13, 2013

Attacking myths: Woman raises awareness for most-feared fish

AMESBURY, Mass. — Many people fear great white sharks. Cynthia Wigren isn’t one of them.

The president and co-founder of the recently formed Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, Wigren is intent on bringing awareness and understanding — while dispelling harmful myths — about the Atlantic Ocean’s most fearsome fish.

The goal of the conservancy is to educate the public about the role of the animal, to inspire conservation efforts and to support scientific research on the great white shark.

The species is critical to keeping the ocean healthy, Wigren said.

As sharks disappear, the ocean’s predator-prey balance becomes disrupted, compromising the health of the world’s oceans and the survival of other marine species, she said.

And healthy oceans, which produce 80 percent of the world’s oxygen supply, are critical to human survival, Wigren said.

That environment lifesaver, however,  is being threatened. Today, more than 100 million sharks are killed globally each year by humans. Overfishing, habitat destruction and trophy hunting all contribute to the shark’s demise. But a culinary preference is also behind a stunning number of deaths, according to Wigren.

“Finning is the gruesome practice of slicing off the fins of a live shark, then allowing the shark to drop to the ocean’s depths to suffocate, bleed out, and die” for the purpose of making shark fin soup, she said.

That’s where the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy comes in. By educating the public and working to dispel myths and fears about the species, the group seeks to grow respect for the shark that other predators receive, such as lions and tigers, and stop the idea that sharks are “monsters.”

 “Great white sharks are not man-eaters,” Wigren said, which she calls one of the biggest misconceptions about the species. Great whites do not target humans as their prey, she added, and they typically bite due to a case of mistaken identity.

A shark will bite, then release once he realizes his unintended prey, she said, but because humans are so fragile, the encounters can be fatal.

Fortunately, shark attacks are relatively rare. A 2011 study reveals that 12 people were killed worldwide by sharks. But in that same year, 11,417 sharks were killed by humans — each hour.

But Wigren does not downplay tragic human-shark encounters. Preventing such tragedies from occurring is of paramount importance to AWSC.

Sharks have been citizens of the world’s oceans for more than 400 million years, Wigren said. “They have perfectly evolved and adapted to their environment. The only threat to their existence is us.”

To learn more about the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, visit the group’s website:

Details for this story were provided by Kathleen Downey, a reporter for the Newburyport (Mass.) Daily News


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