By Shark Stewards team member Ari Gustlin
“Shark!” The scream goes throughout a beachfront scene as movie goers watch the carnage of a vicious attack unfold before them.
Jaws was the first of many movies to show these sensationalized stereotypes for sharks, now there are several hundred “rogue shark” films in today’s industry. This needs to change amongst the entertainment industry as the media’s influence has had a negative effect on the public’s view of sharks. This unfortunate reality has contributed to the lack of better funding for conservation efforts, while media and film has made money off sharks for years now. Shows like “Shark Week” on Discovery Channel and other false narrative movies need to be held accountable. Sharks are getting killed at ridiculously increasing numbers and their loss is not only devastating for the species but for the ecosystems they are within. Better precautions need to be taken to promote accurate information because the lack thereof has had its repercussions.
Sharks are killed at an alarming rate, their death affects the sea population around them, and they are lacking support based on false man-eating narratives. In an article by Global Wildlife Conservation, Wes Sechrest, GWC chief scientist and CEO was quoted saying, “In recent years, many countries and organizations have begun to understand that sharks, like other wild species, are critical to the health of our planet. Contrary to the notion that sharks are a threat to humans, humans have been the real threat to sharks.” Specific marine life produces a large portion of Earth’s oxygen, because of this the loss of species like sharks, or even whales and dolphins can have devastating results for our whole planet.
Sharks, themselves have had substantial population loss, “up to 70 million sharks are killed each year by the fishing industry as accidental bycatch and for shark fin soup… As a result, many shark species face extinction” (Myrick and Evans, 545). Some studies quote that it could be nearly 10,000 sharks killed an hour. Shark’s are often finned alive, where they are thrown overboard to be drowned, as sharks need to keep moving for their gils to absorb oxygen. This decline in population is a great risk for shark species as “sharks and their relatives include some of the latest maturing and slowest reproducing of all vertebrates, exhibiting the longest gestation periods…”(Dulvy 590), meaning population regrowth is slow at best.
The depletion of shark species in areas can contribute to the overpopulation and disruption of sealife, “In North Carolina, functional elimination of large sharks led to a proliferation of cownose rays which, in turn, reduced scallops to such low levels that the traditional local scallop fishery had to close” (Friedrich 2). These rays functionally took over the area, and caused hvac that could have been prevented. Taking an apex predator from its ecosystem has proven to have devastating effects to the surrounding populations, this is the continued risk we take by allowing for the depletion of shark species. During the study of population declines in sharks and similar species a prevalent issue in conservation efforts is conservation of commercial aquatic species that have slipped through the cracks of national and international management (Dulvy 590). Shark conservation is a serious issue that is not getting the accurate response it needs to prevent further damage to our oceans ecosystems.
The waters scariest predator, the shark, has been brought into homes and minds for years. A dangerous killer, or misunderstood and exploited? Media, movies, news stories, even Discovery’s Shark Week, paints a violent killer. A study published by Jessica Gall Myrick and Suzannah D. Evans suggests “that televised shark-on-human violence, whether gory, cartoonish, or realistic, can possibly result in fear and/or overstated beliefs about personal risk” (557-558). Humans even miles away from the ocean feel at risk of shark attack because of television. Ths means a heightened response to the animal and can often prevent further interest in conservation and education. According to the information from the Florida International Shark Attack File, you are 5x more likely to die by dog than by shark. In fact, the risk of dying by shark in your lifetime is 1 in over 3 million and yet the public has been horrified by the idea since Jaws in 1985. Media continues to wreak havoc on these generally peaceful creatures, even Discovery’s Shark Week follows this unfortunate stereotype to bring in views. When most of the public’s information about Sharks comes from this misconception, it deters from proper shark conservation and donations being made to the cause. In the 3rd International Marine Conservation Congress, there was large “…concern by marine conservationists over the potential for these documentaries to undermine public knowledge about sharks, and the potential to cause “scares” that could be detrimental to shark conservation…” (O’Bryan 46). The IMCC even had a whole panel set out specially for this issue. The negative and false claims distributed about sharks has proven direct impact on these efforts, and continues to be a leading problem.
The shark has made the movie industry and television millions of dollars. As Neff wrote in his 2015 article, “In fact, no other animal, on land or in the water, generates the entertainment income that shark species do.” (Neff 2) We need to put pressure on the entertainment industry and media to put some of the money they make back into the creatures they have exploited for years. In the study conducted by Myrick and Evans they reported, “While viewing shark conservation PSAs did increase intentions to support shark conservation, it did not alleviate the fear participants felt after viewing the segments” (Myrick, Evans 560). We needed to push efforts towards not only making sure accurate information is being spread but also to move the entertainment industry into paying reparations to Sharks from these high grossing movies, and shows. Discovery’s channel’s Shark Week is still a very one of a kind programming and is leading contribution to shark information, both good and bad. One of the things Discovery Channel is known for is they’re contributions to efforts, during Shark Week’s team up with Shark Tank, they contributed $50,000 matching Shark Tank’s own Daymond John. As discovery’s channel programming isn’t always “shark friendly”, in 2010 they teamed up with ocean conservation group Oceania, scientists believe it “may be seen as an attempt to respond to those critiques.” (Myrick, Evans 562). These media companies need to do more, and make bigger contributions based on the profits the;ve continued to make over the years. Efforts need to be put forth to make effective PSA’s that send viewers directly to where they can support and see what’s being done to help save these beautiful beasts.
It’s been a longtime now that scary shark movies have been a popular grossing topic, while the movies themselves may have caused misconceptions about sharks, could they be what we need to save them? O’Bryan found that information was the key driver in conservation efforts, in fact he wrote, “…that someone does not necessarily have to have a good perception of sharks to potentially support their conservation. Rather knowledge of sharks and their importance to the marine ecosystem may be enough to garner support for their protection.” (O’Bryan 45) This was also backed up by Myrick and Evans study, “While Shark Week’s portrayal of shark-on-human violence resonated with viewers and evoked a fear of sharks, participants were also more likely to support shark conservation after viewing a PSA.”(Myrick,Evans 563) If we made sure to pair regulation of film information, with informative PSA’s, and also enforced contribution directly to shark efforts, we might be able to move the industry from negatively impacting conservation. Most efforts push to completely unroot the story of a rogue shark, but this man vs predator story is clearly deeply ingrained in modern society. The question that stands is, could focus on making these stories more profitable for shark conservation and be ultimately more successful then trying to change an entertaining fictional narrative? Efforts have been long focused on a narrative change but can sharks and shark stereotypes coexis?
In conclusion, changes need to be made to keep shark conservation moving forward. Sharks are important to marine life and ecosystems everywhere, and their loss could have many detriments to our planet’s health. It is pertinent that we change the way we perceive sharks in the media, or that we move forward to use the grossing money made off the shark stereotype to help sharks. Lack of information and bias is the biggest issue that sharks face in their lack of contributions. Soon we may face irreversible repercussions based on overfishing and the ecosystem destruction of the shark species. Jaws and other shark films are clearly beloved classics, and I don’t think we should have to lose out on the entertainment that brings sharks into homes. Somehow we need to combine this appreciation for this great predator into direct efforts of protecting them. These majestic kings of the sea deserve as much support as their dolphin, whale, and other marine life counterparts.
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