Shark Week: Of Fins and Fiction

At the risk of sounding obvious — it’s Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual plug for the much maligned (but secretly awesome) top predators of the deep!

Started in 1988, as a way for the station to capitalize on the lack of summer competition for programming while aiding conservation efforts for the infamously finned and fanged fellows, the sharks and Discovery Channel have had what you may call a symbiotic relationship. Sharks get the station viewers and the viewers provide better ratings for the station while becoming better educated about sharks and the need for strong conservation efforts. Win/win/win.

Well, at least that’s how Shark Week started…

Lately, Shark Week has, well, it’s been a little disappointing — at least from a scientific standpoint. 

Most of the programming is seemingly centered on making the public at large even more afraid of sharks than they already are (even while these fears are generally not grounded in fact). They’re hyping up fears of getting eaten by one while making the shark from Jaws look comparable to a goldfish you’d take home in a plastic bag.

Here I’m talking about the megalodon, or Carcharodon megalodon

While it’s incredible that this positively massive species of shark ever existed (let alone that we now have the capabilities to find and date their fossils to between 28 and 2 million years ago) the folks with Shark Week have decided that the species wasn’t interesting enough on its own merit. Instead, they’ve now made two completely un-scientific “documentaries” about “scientists” “searching” for it (Click here for an in depth review of actual scientific theories surrounding megalodon).

You may also have heard that some restaurants have tried to capitalize on Shark week this year by serving shark meat on their menus. Really.It’s getting pretty clear at this point that the programming is seriously diluting the conservation message that Shark Week was originally meant to convey.

In a conversation on all things Shark Week with the International Business Times, Sonja Fordham, a marine biologist and founder of Shark Advocates International was asked about the positive and negative effects of Shark Week on the public’s perception of sharks. On this point she said:

“Well, it’s really hard to tell. There’s good things and bad things,Talking about sharks, providing all types of people and interest groups to get out their messages tied to this global event — one time a year we’re all focused on sharks — so that can be very positive if we capitalize on that. But then of course the negative image, the perpetuation of the fear of sharks, does not help shark conservation. It’s a pretty outdated view to see sharks as killing machines or serious threats to beach goers. That negative imagery doesn’t help in help of advancing shark conservation policies.” 

So it’s a mixed bag. But we can use the hype of Shark Week to start conversations about conservation, the need to protect sharks and ways change our perceptions of them.

It might be an uphill battle, but we’re still making progress.

If you have the desire to learn more about sharks (including the extinct megalodon) make sure you come to HMNS for our SHARK! exhibit, opening August 29.

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