Every year at the end of June, my social media accounts explode with anxious fans excited about the return of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. And every year I get frustrated with all of my Facebook friends for supporting what has been one of the most egregious cases of pseudoscience and fearmongering.
Sharks are really cool. They’re amazing animals – thousands of years of evolution have resulted in species that are incredibly suited to their environment and lifestyle. And yes, in many cases, this means they’re really good at hunting. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to hunt you. In a recent article for Wired (highly recommended – give it a read!), the director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation was quoted pointing out that “everyone always forgets the 500 other species that aren’t ever going to bite a swimmer”.
But, judging by the titles and descriptions of some of the Shark Week specials, this isn’t what the Discovery Channel wants you to know. The Shark Week 2016 lineup includes titles like
- Wrath of a Great White Serial Killer
- Sharks Among Us
- The Killing Games
- Deadliest Shark
- Shallow Water Invasion
- Return of the Monster Mako
These aren’t titles you would give a documentary designed to educate an audience thirsty for the latest and greatest scientific advances. These are titles you would give to terrify an audience and sell more advertisements.
But why is that bad?
Well, conservation organizations are generally pretty excited when something generates interest in the environment. It’s an opportunity to get people invested in their cause. And Shark Week is a great opportunity to bring attention to the plight of sharks.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, considered to be the most complete and scientifically accurate list of threatened species, lists 24% of all species of sharks, rays, and skates as threatened with extinction. In addition to that, severe declines in populations of sharks have been recorded over the last 30 years. Since 1986, fisheries data suggests that there has been a population decline of:
- 89% in hammerhead sharks
- 80% in thresher sharks
- 79% in great white sharks
- 70% in mako sharks
- 65% in tiger sharks
- 60% in blue sharks
And most alarmingly, data suggests that there has been a 99% decline in the population of oceanic whitetip sharks since the 1950s.
Because sharks play a very important role at the top of the food web, this is really bad news. Frequently, animals at the top of the food chain, which scientists call apex predators, regulate the balance of the ecosystem and keep prey populations healthy. Overall, it’s safe to say that sharks are in need of conservation.
For more information about shark population declines in an easily readable format, check out Southern Fried Science’s post.
That’s where you come in.
Successful conservation is dependent upon public support. And media coverage has a definite and immediate impact on public opinion.
Media coverage of sharks is “overwhelmingly and unrealistically negative”. One study evaluated shark attack data from Australia and found that 40% of the so-called “shark attacks” reported in the last 30 years didn’t actually involve a shark biting a human at all. For example, a shark making contact with a boat is recorded as a “shark attack”, even if there is no direct contact between humans and sharks. FORTY PERCENT.
And another study found that despite their risk of extinction, most media coverage in the US and Australia is focused on the risks sharks pose to humans, rather than the other way around.
For more information about the effect of media on shark conservation, check out shark researcher David Shiffman’s post.
In a time when shark populations are in very real jeopardy, the type of fearmongering we frequently see in Shark Week specials is not only irresponsible, it is – as this Huffington Post article suggests – dangerous.
But things are looking up. Maybe. In 2014, following massive public outcry in response to the mockumentary Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, the head of Discovery Channel has promised that Shark Week specials will be less misleading in the future (emphasis on the less).
And this year, the Discovery Channel has partnered with conservation group Oceana, which is leading a campaign to end the trade of shark fins in the US. Shark finning – when fishermen remove the fins of the shark and throw the rest of the animal overboard – is one of the greatest threats to sharks today. Used primarily in gourmet Asian cuisine, it is estimated that fins from 73 million sharks are traded annually.
So just remember, one of the primary goals of Shark Week is to promote conservation not fear. And we need all the help we can get.