What comes to mind when you hear the word shark? If it’s during Discovery Channel’s most popular program, it is generally excitement, some science and a lot of programming on great white shark attacks and other fearsome predators. Discovery Channel’s Shark Week celebrated its 35th year this past week. Last year Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson hosted the week-long shark fest, followed this year by Jason Mamoa. Both action figures have Polynesian blood and proudly sport tattoos worthy of Manō (Hawaiian for shark), both cultural icons appealing to Sharkweek’s primetime audience of adults and men 18-49.
Mamoa himself, designated as the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Advocate for Life Below Water, brings conservation credibility to this year’s program. Shark Week is an annual Discovery Channel television event dedicated to sharks, and highly anticipated by those fond or fearing the toothy denizens of the deeps.
Charismatic as an apex predator, Aquaman navigates us through programs such as Belly of the Beast: Feeding Frenzy (a camera in a shark’s belly via a decoy); Air Jaws the Final Frontier (flying sharks); Great White Fight Club; Jaws Vs the Meg; and other films with the descriptors: monster, blood in the water, serial killer and fresh blood.
According to the producers, the main focus of Shark Week is to educate the public about sharks, their behavior, habitats, and the importance of shark conservation. The programming includes a mix of documentaries, special features, and educational segments that showcase various aspects of these fascinating marine creatures. However, much of the programming hosts comedians and celebrities whose antics fall as flat as a sting ray.
Whats all the fuss about? Sharkweek has drawn blood from the shark conservation community by emphasizing the fierce and ferocious nature of sharks, many featuring white sharks. Some episodes perpetuate the Jaws myth that sharks are mindless man eaters and cold blooded killing machines. The late Peter Benchley, author of Jaws used the last decades of his life to attempt to undo what his book, and the film did to sharks. After almost 50 years, film producer Steven Spielberg has finally made a statement regretting the negative stereotypes his influential film and an entire sub genre of shark- thrillers that Jaws indirectly spawned.
According to Discovery, the 2023 premiere of Shark Week’s 35th year was the highest-rated Shark Week premiere night in three years. This year’s line up mixes scientific credibility with Dr. Austin Gallagher, and inanity with Dr. Pimple Popper.
While Shark Week has been criticized in the past for sensationalizing shark attacks and perpetuating fear, in recent years the Discovery Channel has made efforts to shift the focus towards education and conservation. But the 2023 program has also received its fair share of criticism, including a July 24, 2023 NPR interview with Dr. Gavin Naylor, a shark scientist who directs the University of Florida’s shark research program. Naylor says “it (Shark Week) is using graphic, sensationalized footage in its portrayal of sharks.” According to Dr. Naylor, the risk of being bitten by a shark is way overblown in the series.
Given its significant viewership and media influence, Shark Week has a responsibility to strike a balance between entertainment and education, and not stray from science for the sake of sensationalism.
Attack on Sharks
Shark attacks on humans are fortunately relatively rare events, and it’s crucial to remember that sharks are not malicious creatures actively seeking out humans as prey. Sensationalized portrayals of shark attacks can perpetuate fear and misunderstanding about these essential apex predators, potentially hindering conservation efforts.
The fact is that instead of being the villain, sharks are really the victim. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed one third of all sharks, skates and ray species as threatened with extinction. It is estimated that between 73 and 100 million sharks and their cousins are killed by direct commercial fishing, shark finning and as bycatch every year. Using this estimate, over 192,00 sharks will be killed this Shark Week. At this rate, these statistics predict there will not be many sharks left for future shark weeks. Yet despite many species spiraling to extinction, many at the hands of shark finners supply the voracious demand for shark fin soup, Discovery still has shockingly few programs on threats to sharks and solutions for sharks for their survival.
Through exposing sharks to the public, and increasing their presence in social media, Sharkweek does provide those of us working in shark conservation a service. The programming allows for commentary, press and even raising some positive awareness for sharks.
After the week ends we will continue to lose these magnificent animals by the millions. With many species facing extinction the public needs to reconsider the myths around sharks, and join Shark Stewards celebrating sharks this Sharktober, while working to save these important and majestic fish.
It’s important to note that while Shark Week can play a positive role in raising awareness and generating interest in shark conservation, it can influence the attitudes and behavior of millions. The real and sustained conservation efforts will come from ongoing research, advocacy, and the commitment of individuals, organizations, and governments to protect sharks and the oceans they inhabit.
Join Shark Stewards, support the EU Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act by signing the petition and consider supporting our other campaigns.
Shark Stewards is a non profit project of the Earth Island Institute. Learn more at Sharkstewards.org