With Shark Week now over on Discovery Channel, I’d like to draw your attention to the reality of sharks.
If you’re a fan of Shark Week, you may want to reconsider WHY that is. NPR recently criticized the highly popular program, calling it a “B-movie-style blend of fiction, bad acting, a few facts and potential injuries to sharks”. An interviewed shark researcher lamented that while Shark Week used to feature real science and research about sharks and attempted to redeem their “man-eater” reputation, it is now quite the opposite, as researchers “under flimsy scientific premises” bait sharks in order to get “sweet footage of sharks biting stuff”.
Anyone who knows anything about sharks knows that they are typically harmless animals that don’t associate humans with food and very VERY rarely attack humans. In fact, shark attacks injure about 75 people per year with only 5 fatalities. To put this in perspective, you have a fantastically better chance of winning the lottery than you do of getting injured by a shark.
Unfortunately, Shark Week is now full of shows (both real and fictitious) in which baited sharks are made to attack (and break their teeth on) metal cameras and cages. Not only does this shark baiting often injure the shark needlessly, but it can cause the shark to associate the bait with humans and therefore make them more likely to attack humans in the future.
In related news from earlier this summer, the hype about shark attacks has caused the Australian government to actually cull sharks from its waters! “The scheme, which was part of the state’s $20 million shark mitigation policy, allowed for tiger, bull and great white sharks measuring longer than 10 feet (3 meters) hooked on the drum lines to be destroyed.”
Not only did this “successful” cull fail to catch any Great Whites (the shark most known for attacking humans), but “of the 172 sharks that were caught on the drum line, the majority were tiger sharks which haven’t been involved in shark fatalities for decades in Western Australia”. Plus, more than 70% of the sharks caught were not large enough to be a threat. Authorities claim that the cull restored confidence in beachgoers, but at what cost?
One of the worst threats to sharks is shark fin soup. “About 75m-100m sharks are thought to be killed each year for their fins, which are prized in Chinese culture for making the gelatinous yellow soup. The sharks are caught, their fins are sliced off and they are often thrown back into the ocean, where they die a slow death”. “The mass slaughter has led to some shark populations declining by up to 98% in the last 15 years, and nearly one third of all ocean-going sharks are now on the internationally recognised red list of threatened species.”
On the bright side, the revulsion and outcry of the West has caused China to crack down on corruption and extravagant consumption. Many restaurants in China have taken the soup off the menu. Popular basketball star Yao Ming started a campaign that is said to have helped reduce consumption of shark fin soup and contributed to the government’s decision to formally ban the soup from state banquets along with other wild animal products. Global efforts have contributed to the establishment of several shark sanctuaries around the world and increased China’s focus on the environment as a whole.
Why is it important to save sharks? Why should we care that human activity is fast depleting shark populations beyond repair? For the most part, it’s to save our own skins. “Predatory sharks prey on the sick and the weak members of their prey populations, and some also scavenge the sea floor to feed on dead carcasses. By removing the sick and the weak, they prevent the spread of disease and prevent outbreaks that could be devastating. Preying on the weakest individuals also strengthens the gene pools of the prey species. Since the largest, strongest, and healthiest fish generally reproduce in greater numbers, the outcome is larger numbers of healthier fish.” What this means is, sharks keep fish populations strong and healthy so that we can continue to fish. When people continue to fish, people continue to eat and make a living.
Get involved in your community’s environmental groups. Anything you’re doing to live a sustainable lifestyle is better than nothing.
Talk about it. Instead of talking about the weather or Rihanna’s new hairdo, why not discuss what a non-threat sharks are to humans? The more people realize this, the less stigma there will be about sharks at your local beach.
Boycott Shark Week and tell people why. Discovery Channel generates billions of dollars in revenue by making sharks look like man-eating monsters, creating fear and misunderstanding about sharks.