Even news media need to go to the beach sometimes. Every summer, at about this time, shark stories start popping up on the cable nets. Whether or not a shark attack on some hapless swimmer sparks the stories, they spawn like media grunion. You might as well get ready to deal with it, especially if you live near some part of the 12,400-mile U.S. coastline where sharks can be found.
Like Steven Spielberg, tabloid media can grab huge audiences by manipulating fear (remember "Jaws," the movie that made him a mogul). But journalists who want to give their audiences a fair representation of the complex reality might note that humans are far more of a threat to sharks than sharks are to humans — statistically speaking.
The timing is inevitable. More U.S. citizens are in the water during late July and early August than at any other time of year — more exposure usually means more anxiety, if not more attacks. But it is also the time of year when the Discovery network spends a whole week whipping up enthusiasm over sharks. This year, Discovery's Shark Week starts July 31.
In any single year — or on a long-term average — the number of fatalities from shark attacks is infinitesimal compared to those from other hazards like dog attacks, collapsing sand holes, do-it-yourself projects, or toilet seats. This does not stop some cable nets from making the danger seem like a horror movie trailer — a triumph of anecdote over data.
Because of shark-finning, fishing bycatch, overfishing, and other human practices, some shark species are seriously endangered.
Worldwide, the greatest threat may be finning — cutting the dorsal fin off of a caught shark and throwing it back into the sea to die. In her new book, Demon Fish, Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin notes that the prime force driving the market for fins is the status associated with serving shark fin soup in traditional Chinese culture. She says the soup is a "scam" because the fins themselves are tasteless, stringy, and full of mercury.
Federal law puts severe restrictions on finning — and some loopholes were closed by the Shark Conservation Act, signed into law by President Obama January 4, 2011. But that law only affects shark products landed in the US, and finning continues with little slack in the fisheries of many other countries. Some US states, like Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California, have mounted efforts to outlaw shark fin sales or selling of the soup in restaurants.
Shark Week may once have been an effort to relive "Jaws" — but in more recent years Discovery has used the event as a chance to educate the public about sharks, build awareness of the threats they face, and explain the need to conserve them.
- Shark Research Institute.
- International Shark Attack File.
- Mote Marine Lab Center for Shark Research. Shark Myths. Press contacts: Hayley Rutger, 941-388-4441, ext. 365; or Nadine Slimak, 941-388-4441, ext. 417.
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group (at the Ichthyology Department, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida). Staff directory; 352-392-2360.
- Global Shark Conservation Page, Pew Charitable Trusts. Press contact: Dan Klotz, 202-887-8855.
- NOAA Fisheries Sharks Page.
- The Dorsal Fin ("shark news without the hysteria").
- Stop Shark Finning.
- "The Strength and Success of Shark Week," Huffington Post, July 18, 2011, by Elizabeth Griffin Wilson (Oceana).
- "Shark Conservation Act Becomes Law," Wired, January 6, 2011, by Brandon Keim.
- "Great White Shark Population Lower Than Previously Believed," Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 2011.
- "Battle Over Shark Fin Soup Heats Up in California," Los Angeles Times, June 29, 2011, by Margot Roosevelt.
- "Sharkonomics: What's Good For Sharks Is Good for the Economy," Slate, June 30, 2011, by Juliet Eilperin.
- "Hawaii's Shark Fin Product Ban Takes Effect July 1," Maui News, June 28, 2011, by Carla Tracy.
- "Top Shark Attack Locations," Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 2010.
- "Shark Fins — Soon Illegal in Oregon," Willamette Week, June 30, 2011, by Mark L. Zusman.
- "Why Our Love-Hate Relationship with Sharks? 'Demon Fish' Dissects The History, The Future, and 'The Greatest Scam of All Time' (Book Review)," Treehugger, June 28, 2011, by Jaymi Heimbuch.
- "One-Third of World's Sharks, Skates and Rays Face Extinction," Washington Post, December 12, 2010, by David Fleshler.