Quirks & Quarks

Scientists want a 'fin-ale' to Shark Week shows that hurt sharks

July 27, 2018

An environmental activist releases a baby black-tip shark into the sea near Thailand (CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)

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Shark week programming is filled with fear-mongering and misinformation, and the public opinion it generates ends up hurting the animals it's supposed to be celebrating.  8:59

If you've noticed an uptick in razor sharp teeth and bass-heavy music on your TV this week, there's a reason for that: it's Shark Week, Discovery Channel's annual celebration of sharks with documentaries such as "Bloodline: The Spawn of Jaws" "Sharkwrecked" and "Monster Tag." Now in its 30th year, Shark Week is a ratings wonder for the network, bringing in millions of viewers in 72 countries. 

But shark conservationists and biologists are criticizing the event, saying that by painting sharks as bloodthirsty murderous monsters with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, Shark Week is actually hurting the animals it's supposed to be celebrating.

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A Sand Tiger shark swims in an aquarium in Spain (RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

"Shark Week is a wonderful platform for getting people to learn about sharks and shark research and shark conservation," says Dr. David Shiffman, a Marine conservation biologist studying sharks at Simon Fraser University. "But a lot of the information on Shark Week is just wrong. And some of it is harmful."

"Given that 24 percent of all known species of sharks and their relatives are listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List, which makes them some of the most threatened animals in the world, it matters that people know the real facts and aren't scared of them."

Dr. David Shiffman tagging a lemon shark in Florida (David Shiffman)

Dr. Shiffman has been watching Shark Week since he was a child, and six years ago, he decided to fact check the shark shows he was watching, live, on Twitter under the handle WhySharksMatter. His tweets were shared by the thousands, and he quickly became the second most followed marine biologist on Twitter.

"There's a lot of people that get their facts about sharks from horror movies and Shark Week. Jaws is one probably one of the most influential fictional films of all time. And people think that that is typical shark behavior and it is not," he says.

"If you've been swimming in the ocean there's been a shark near you and it knew you were there and it didn't bother you and you're fine. These are not animals that go out of their way to hurt us. Sharks don't eat people. Most bites end immediately when the shark realizes that we are not food and swims off."

Whale Shark (Pixabay)

He's kept up the tradition every year, not only fact checking, but pitching alternate shark week shows that glamorise the lesser-known sharks in the world.

"There are at least 509 species of sharks. There are 28 that live in Canadian waters. But the only shark you ever seem to see on Shark Week is the Great White, which is honestly not that amazing of a shark. They're fine. I have nothing against Great Whites. I was excited when I got to swim with them in South Africa, but it's not the only shark."

Sandbar shark (Pixabay)

"What I suggest that people do if they want to help sharks and help the ocean ecosystem in general is a few things. One is eat sustainable seafood and don't eat unsustainable seafood. Another thing is if you have time or if you have spare funds donate time or money to a research organization near you or to a reputable mainstream nonprofit group also share accurate information about threats facing sharks and how they can help. And don't share inaccurate information."