03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shark is the New Dolphin

I recently attended a "Sharktober Fest" at San Francisco's Aquarium of the Bay where Sherman's Lagoon cartoonist Jim Toomey was given a shark protector award. Groups in attendance included the pro-shark 'Sea Stewards' and 'Dorsal Friends.' Last month, the President of the Pacific island nation of Palau went in front of the U.N. to announce the creation of the world's first "shark sanctuary," banning all commercial shark fishing in its 230,000 square miles of water, an area about the size of France.

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, has given protection to three species of shark: Great Whites, Whale Sharks and Basking Sharks and will consider six more, including the less charismatically named Spiny Dogfish at its meeting next year. In February 2010, the U.N. Convention on Migratory Species will be sponsoring a gathering in the Philippines aimed at establishing a global agreement on the conservation of sharks. And just as environmentalists campaigned in the 1990s to guarantee dolphin safe tuna, two groups recently formed to certify "shark safe" restaurants that can still serve tuna as long as they leave sharks unharmed.

In the midst of this new shark makeover I've even seen footage of two advocates who free dive, touch and ride tiger sharks and white sharks to demonstrate that they aren't really "man-eaters." Since one of them is a woman even if she's eaten her supporters might still argue sharks aren't "man-eaters."

Having swum with bull sharks, hammerheads and other big predators, I tend towards the more cautious advocacy of naturalist author Ed Abbey who used to say, "If there's not something bigger and meaner than you out there it's not really wilderness." Of course the odds are unfairly stacked. Every year some five to eight humans are killed by sharks, worldwide, while we kill 100 million of these sleek, slow-growing carnivores emptying the seas of sharks just as we once emptied our terrestrial frontier of wolves and bears.

Going back over 450 million years sharks were well established when dinosaurs were still the coming thing. And yet in the last fifty years about half the world's shark species have become endangered at the hands, nets and hooks of humans -- even as science is discovering that, like the big land predators, sharks tend to act as keystone species for maintaining the balance of life in a range of ocean habitats.

Much of today's commercial killing is for shark fin soup, a tasteless cartilage dish flavored with chicken broth and seasoning and popular among China's expanding middle-class as a status symbol of wealth. Its served at weddings and other special occasions and often goes for $150 a bowl or more.

The late "Jaws" author Peter Benchley, who went on to become a shark conservationist, once contrasted his youth on Nantucket Island, when you couldn't haul in a swordfish without a shark taking a chunk out of it, with today's rapid decline of the large predators. He recalled a dive off Costa Rica where he found the bottom littered with dead sharks whose fins had been cut off to sell for soup.

Sharks are also killed for meat and shark liver oil, although you can get the same health benefits by listening to your mother and eating your dark green vegetables. So while I believe a global moratorium on commercial shark fishing would be both right and justified in terms of maintaining marine diversity and ocean health, I'm opposed to anthropomorphizing sharks as sleek but harmless swimming buddies, a misunderstood breed of toothsome Flippers.

Unfortunately that boat may have already left the dock as I discovered some years ago. I was helping release a pair of relatively docile nurse sharks off Key Largo that had been raised in a Chicago pet shop until they grew too large for their tank. Having been flown cross-country in large coolers we had to form a circle in the near shore water to revive them before their release from a dive boat.

As I guided the first shark through the water, I noticed its skin felt more like raw silk than sandpaper and could feel its jet-lagged muscles beginning to work beneath the skin as it tried to move away from the circle. I firmly directed it back along the line. Shark wrangling could seem Macho I thought except for the fact that Sky, a 7-year-old blond pixie in a blue wetsuit was now hugging the other animal. "No hugging the shark, you have to pass her along," the girl's mother gently chided her.

Like I said, Shark is the new Dolphin.