Confessions of a Shark Anthropologist (Anthropology News)

Anthropology and Environment Society

April 22, 2015

Patrick Nason

Earlier this year I received a phone call from an unknown number. “This is the National Geographic Channel. Is it true that you are a shark anthropologist?” I paused— “Yes, I guess you can say that.” “Great, we are doing a program about sharks and are asking experts why sharks attack at certain times and in certain places more than others. Can you tell me a bit about your work?”

My interest in sharks began in 2005 during an internship at a resort in Papua New Guinea. Ten miles from shore and ninety feet below the surface, a twelve-foot hammerhead shark swam straight at me, stopping only three feet away before turning to rejoin its group. As it moved gracefully into the deep, I caught my breath and returned to the surface.

Four years later, I was working on a dive boat in South Florida when a sport-fishing boat motored past with a large grey hammerhead hung from its rigging. For a brief moment, I thought it was the shark I encountered years before. And why couldn’t it be? Like whales, most species of sharks are highly migratory. They have little respect for exclusive economic zones, marine protected areas, or any other enclosures. What might appear as absolute freedom in these animals has led to the production of an abstract image of sharks as transgressive predators, menaces to society, and worthy targets of sport. Regardless of what the category of the shark has become, the individual animal hanging from that fishing boat was certainly dead—no longer a terrible monster.

Sharks Arranged for Sale at Fish Market, Indonesia (Photo credit: Patrick Nason)
Sharks Arranged for Sale at Fish Market, Indonesia (Photo credit: Patrick Nason)

This incident took place in 2009, just after Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwater revealed the decimation of global shark populations by the finning industry. Considering the importance of sharks to healthy marine ecosystems, surely it was wrong to continue killing them for sport. Thinking I might do some good, I spoke with the captain of the boat about their catch.

“Couldn’t you release them from now on?” I asked.

“They normally die during the fight.”

“Well, what about fishing for something else?”

“Sailfish and marlin are not in season,” he said. “And besides, the clients are paying for the experience, and they want their photo taken with the big sharks.”

“Yes but hammerhead populations are in serious decline.” I said.

“We catch plenty of them, and easily too. More this year than last.”

I was stuck. How could I prove something was threatened when local knowledge suggests otherwise? Even worse, how could anyone prove sharks were in decline when, as free-roaming marine animals, they cannot be easily counted?

That same year, National Geographic aired a documentary entitled Drain the OceanThe promotional abstract read: “In this special, we look at what most call ‘The Final Frontier.’ Using the newest data from scientists all over the world and the latest advancements in computer generated imaging, we are able to explore some of the most dramatic landscapes the Earth has to offer.” This was exactly what my argument lacked—quantitative support through technological innovation. If computers could reveal the geological truths of this invisible realm, perhaps they could also reveal the ecological truths of a planet in decline—dolphins tangled in drift nets, massive whales with harpoons rusting in their backs, and dwindling populations of sharks swishing their tales through the muddy terrain. If this could be done, then maybe I could convince the fisherman that killing sharks for money was wrong.

But draining the ocean is not yet possible, nor should it be. Even if through some technological means we could illuminate the other seventy percent of our planet, the lives and the forms of relationality between humans and marine animals (however contentious they may be) would change at the moment of discovery. In trying to protect sharks, neither scientific nor emotional appeals alone are sufficient to effect social change. There remains a mystery of what oceanic animals do, how they do it, and exactly how many are required to keep doing what they do. If this mystery were completely resolved, the result would be equally harmful to marine life and to those who make their living upon the sea; for this unknown marks the distinction between our terrestrial selves and aquatic others, and is therefore what makes knowledge of the ocean (and thus ourselves) possible.

 An Anthropology of the Ocean

My phone call with National Geographic didn’t last long. The producer ended it by saying, “Your work sounds interesting, but we are looking for more evidence about why these attacks are occurring. Could you recommend a good marine biologist?” I did, and promptly hung up. I thought about our conversation—I don’t even know what a shark anthropologist is, and I’m supposed to be one! 

As human interests are directed into the sea in the form of extractive industry, state securitization, renewable energy, and conservation enclosure, we find ourselves as a species grappling with the politics and hermeneutics of the life aquatic. Responding to this with continued interest in the protection of marine life and forms of relationality, I have begun to sketch an Anthropology of the OceanWorking alongside indigenous fishing communities, ecologists, oceanographers, and drawing on the work of fellow anthropologists like Stefan Helmreich, such an approach examines how oceanic spaces and bodies are imagined, explored, and controlled, and how rights to marine resources are established and translated across social, spatial, and categorical boundaries

Within this framework, an Anthropology of Sharks could do the following: 1) draw upon the history of anthropological theory and method to ask how valuable spaces become ‘final frontiers,’ 2) describe how these produced frontiers are explored, claimed, enclosed—in short, how they are settled, and 3) reveal the forms of dispossession and disenchantment that occur when such settlement attempts to cultivate spaces have already been occupied by other ways of being and knowing. Putting a multispecies twist on subaltern studies and postcolonial anthropology, this approach would not only ask if the shark could “speak,” but if and how it might be heard amid the cacophony of other voices.

Patrick Nason is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, and a blogger at the Shark Research Institute.

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