One minute you’re looking for the next wave, delivered to you by the unending Atlantic, standing in chest high water on the tip of Delaware at Cape Henlopen State Park. And the next, you’re seeing something different. Dark gray pointed shapes resolving from just beyond the breaking waves. Dorsal fins!

Turning back towards shore is a reflex, your movements are slow and heavy, the water sucking at your legs so it’s like those dreams when you try to run and you end up crawling instead. And then, at long last, in the shallows, not deep enough for a shark, spin around, and look.

Oh. Those are just dolphins. Ha ha. But you know what? That’s still enough ocean for one day. Let’s just grab a towel and observe those fins from the beach.

SharknadoSharks are at the top of their food chain, but that’s about the only thing they have going for them. The indignity of Sharknado is the least of it.

Their numbers have declined by as much as 80% since the 1970s. They’re scary. You see something that looks even vaguely like a shark when you’re in the water and most people (but not all) get the hell away from them. If you do observe them in the water, you cannot help but note that they are not especially cuddly wuddly. They have peculiar silvery eyes and gaping mouths revealing jagged teeth. They make sudden moves. They’re unsettling.

Humans worry about being eaten by sharks, and while rare, shark attacks do happen. But sharks are far more often eaten by humans. They taste good. Their fins become a soup that symbolizes wealth, power and prestige in China.

Also, shark livers are filled with Vitamin A. During World War II, when the U.S. government was keen to enhance the night vision of pilots with regular doses of Vitamin A, a shark fishery was established off the Oregon coast dedicated to harvesting the livers of dogfish sharks and soupfin sharks. The liver was removed on the ship, the carcass tossed overboard. (That’s what’s happening in the photo below.)

In 1943, 270,000 pounds of liver were collected, a value of some 5 million dollars. In 1949, scientists figured out how to synthesize Vitamin A, and the fishery closed.

Shark Liver Harvest in Oregon

I learned this last bit about shark livers at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon, one of my favorite museums anywhere. During my visit, I also saw a movie about sharks, called Sharks 3D, a Jean-Michel Cousteau production. The movie is meant to educate kids about sharks and get them concerned about their tenuous future, but it’s dicey dealing with the less savory aspects of shark behavior.

The film is narrated by a sea tortoise, who is himself afraid of sharks because sharks have eaten some of his friends. (I occasionally hoped the turtle would get eaten by a shark at the end of the movie, since he was getting on my nerves, but alas.)

As different shark species are introduced, the tortoise emphasizes the ones that are essentially vegetarian (don’t worry); the rest eat “mammals.” There are three concerns that sea animals have, explained the turtle narrator. Finding food, avoiding getting eaten and…well, ask your parents. But later that prudishness evaporates as in jovial tones, the turtle explains that shark mating is violent, shows a dead female shark killed during violent mating, and then shows that dead female shark being eaten by another.

Well, well. The world is a tough place, kiddos, better get used to it.

Still, we ought to be concerned about sharks disappearing from the waters, and especially concerned about stopping the cruelly wasteful practice of removing a shark’s fin and tossing the carcass back into the water.

Today is the last day to sign a Wildlife Conservation Society petition that seeks to close a loophole in the Shark Conservation Act. The law requires that all shark species caught in US waters be brought to shore with their fins “naturally attached to their bodies.” An exception is made for smooth dogfish sharks,  as long as the weight of their fins is not more than 12% of the weight of the shark carcass.

The Wildlife Conservation Society points out that enforcement of this standard is difficult, and other sharks with fins that look like the smooth dogfish can be brought in undetected as long as this loophole exists. It’s hard for me to fathom why there should be an exception to the “fins naturally attached” standard, so this doesn’t seem like a hard one to get behind.

Although I will still get out of the water if I see a dorsal fin naturally attached to any creature that happens to be near me.