Shark Perception, Not the Ampullae Either

Rob Stewart / Sharkwater via oceana.org

I’ve pondered in the past whether or not our culture’s perceptions of animals get in the way of our ability to understand and protect certain species.  Sharks are a perfect case in point.  Sunday starts the annual celebration of all things tiburon on Discovery’s famed Shark Week. 

In the past the documentaries have diligently attempted to allay fears about sharks by replacing it with knowledge about their biology, habitat use, and the reasons behind their interactions with people.  Sometimes these presentations toe the line between reinforcing and relieving our preconceived ideas about sharks as mindless eating machines interested in consuming everything in their path.  This year seems to be starting off right so far – while the lineup of shows has some dubious titles – they do have a shark expert blogging away about shark conservation. 

Oceana brilliantly timed the release of their report about shark conservation, Predators as Prey: Why Healthy Oceans Need Sharks, earlier this week.  If I were teaching a class on marine conservation, this report would be required reading.  Of all the details presented I was most intrigued by the top-down control shown by tiger sharks upon dugong and green sea turtle species in Australia.  Oysters may be a manatee’s best friend here in Florida but tiger sharks are a seagrass bed’s ally down under. 

Hulu.com posted a sharkumentary, “Search for the Great Sharks”, (released way back in 1992) that presents a classic foul-up with sharks in the media.  Its focus is more on entertainment and hyping the few moments of surprise and stress in the film than on real conservation messages or actual information.  And it continues to light sharks in a negative glow by emphasizing the unfortunate – if uncommon – attacks on people instead of illuminating the damage we have done to their populations. 

The worst part of the film?  At twenty-five minutes a researcher is actually shown gasping and screaming as a white shark surfaces to attack a tuna strung out on a chum line.  Give me a break!  Scientists can be scared – sure – but should we really encourage audiences to continue to believe that fear is a reasonable reaction to a relatively natural feeding behavior?  It would be acceptable if she was shown laughing at herself later on for such a silly moment of hysteria, but it never comes. 

I desperately hope that this year’s Shark Week will overcome the typical sharkumentary and will find a way to inspire awe and respect over fear and paranoia and to further the conservation message.  Let’s not forget the strange math tied up in our interactions with sharks.  On average ten people die due to shark attacks while thirty to sixty million sharks are taken directly or caught as bycatch each year.  While these two stats aren’t exactly correlated, they’re certainly lopsided.

And the truly horrifying thing?  This number doesn’t include decreases in populations of sharks whose food sources have been effected by overfishing, degradation of habitat, or outright habitat loss.  It also doesn’t reflect the changes in population structure and size that we are also seeing in several species, even in the world’s largest fish, the whale shark.  Remember, its all connected. 

There is one connection that I would like to sever… this long lasting idea in our culture that sharks are something to fear and dread and that they do not deserve the same sort of protection that more charismatic animals like dolphins and sea turtles so easily inspire. 

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