We’re used to arguing and controversy, but I think we can all agree on one thing: none of us would enjoy being eaten alive. This universal fear explains why millions are expected to tune into Discovery Channel’s Shark Week beginning on August 10, 2014. We’re fascinated by sharks: creatures perfected by evolution to become top predators of the oceans. We wonder at these fearsome fish that look capable of eating anything without blinking an eye. Many look to Shark Week for entertainment and education about sharks. But recently, the latter has come up lacking, with many Shark Week episodes seeming more based on speculation and entertainment than actual science.
It is not much of a stretch to portray sharks as frightening predators. The Great White shark, for example, can tip the scales at nearly 5,000 pounds and be as long as twenty feet. Definitely not something I want in the water next to me. And chances are, I never will. Sharks rarely attack humans, and few come near beaches where humans are swimming. In fact, it is estimated that an average of 100 million sharks are killed by humans per year. Only four humans have been killed by sharks thus far in 2014. You are more likely to die at the beach by getting hit in the head by a coconut than getting bitten by a shark. More people are killed in America each year by bees and alligators than by sharks. A study by the Center for Disease Control found that twenty-two Americans are killed each year by cows. And yet, I’m not holding my breath that Discovery will release “Cow Week:” one week of cows attacking unsuspecting farmers.
We have every reason to want to learn about sharks and their ecological importance. Many species of sharks are apex predators, and their presence maintains populations of other fish. When a species of shark dies off in one area, it causes a “trickle-down” effect of marine die-off. This even affects coral reefs, which can become choked with algae if fish aren’t around to eat the algae. The die-off of sharks near reefs allows mid-level predators to kill off smaller fish, thus damaging reefs. Due to the connectivity of marine ecosystems, it’s impossible for the reduction of one species not to affect others.
But Shark Week focuses more on what frightens than educates. Last year, Shark Week began with a documentary called “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.” Megalodon, a prehistoric shark, is estimated to have grown up to roughly fifty feet long. According to studies done on skeletal remains of their jaws, Megalodon is estimated to have had the strongest bite of any creature that has ever lived on Earth – enough said. This alone should be impressive, but Shark Week took it a step further. Their documentary purported that Megalodon could still exist, even though it went extinct nearly two million years ago. An immediate backlash occurred as people demanded the facts. In response, Shark Week executive producer Michael Sorensen defended the documentary by stating that “with 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?” The problem is that we do know. We know Megalodon was a tremendous apex predator, and exploring reasons for its extinction could shed light on how present day sharks evolved.
In another troubling incident this past July, a video was posted online of a bull shark feeding in Lake Ontario. People feared entering the water and worried for their safety. But the video turned out to be a hoax. The president and general manager of Discovery, Paul Lewis, is reported to have replied that the video “sparked conversation around sharks…We’re ready to feed this fascination next month with more Shark Week hours than ever before.”
But a frenzy of fear is not conversation, nor is it helpful to humans or sharks. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists three species of hammerhead sharks, whitetips, dogfish sharks, and porbeagle sharks as vulnerable due to overfishing. These sharks are often hunted illegally for their fins. Other species of sharks are dying by getting caught in fishing nets. As more sharks die off, there are environmental consequences as ecosystems readjust.
Shark Week has the potential to reach millions and teach them about sharks. It will be interesting to see if the backlash from the 2013 Megalodon “documentary” has any impact on this year’s Shark Week content. Despite my optimism, I admit to being worried. Discovery announced that Shark Week 2014 will air several documentaries, including “Megalodon: The New Evidence” (that remains to be seen), “Lair of the Mega Shark,” “Zombie Sharks,” and “Jaws Strikes Back.”
It may have been the iconic movie, JAWS, that catapulted the Great White and all sharks to infamy. One cannot help but hope that all of the negative attention they have garnered does not jinx them.
Learn more about sharks and their importance: