Discovery Shark Week: The Morning After
Another Discovery Shark Week has come to a close and in its wake left a lot of divergent impressions about the effect this exceptionally popular event has on shark conservation. About as many environmental organizations have praised the event as have criticized it, and most raised both awareness and funds for seizing the opportunity.
I suggest that the accurate picture lies somewhere in the middle. The Discovery Channel deserves much credit for actively engaging the conservation community in Shark Week activities for well more than a decade now. Every year, you can find shark conservation information on the Shark Week webpages, sites that get a tremendous amount of traffic. Shark Week provides an opportunity for people, with or without cable television, around the world to celebrate their appreciation for sharks. And every year Shark Week sparks countless educational initiatives and community events aimed at shark conservation.
On the other hand, Shark Week programming generally centers around large predatory sharks – usually great whites – biting people and other living things. While programs increasingly feature world-class shark researchers, the dominant, dramatic shark attack footage certainly does not reflect the full picture of shark nature and diversity, and can contribute to the negative images that have hindered shark conservation efforts.
The Shark Week programming choices are understandable though, as the Discovery Channel must focus on giving viewers what they want in order to keep Shark Week going. While the public’s view of sharks has changed remarkably for the good over the last twenty years, people overall continue to be fascinated with sharks as supreme eating machines. Shark conservation policy is absolutely critical to shark survival, but simply nowhere near as sexy and engaging as sharks’ predatory behaviors.
I like to think that most Shark Week viewers have a healthy respect for sharks and their role in the ecosystem, and they want to help ensure sharks stick around. I hope that viewers maintain their keen interest in sharks for the rest of the year, and – in particular – take the time to seek out specific shark conservation information so that they can add their voice to the growing chorus of public concern is that is driving shark conservation policy.
If I could add one message to the Shark Week opinion frenzy, it would be that, by and large, the sharks that are most in need of help today tend to be the (some would say) charismatically-challenged species that are rarely featured on television. While more should be done to safeguard great white sharks, they are in fact among the most protected sharks in the world. At the same time, there are scores of lesser-known, essentially unprotected species under serious threat from overfishing, including makos, oceanic whitetips, hammerheads, a variety of coastal and deepwater dogfish, and numerous species of closely related skates and rays. These species also need and deserve an enthusiastic following, and this is our next challenge.
Concerned citizens who want to translate their love of sharks into action have a lot of opportunities to help. Here are just a few ideas:
- Encourage Discovery Channel to remain mindful of shark conservation issues and consider expanding the range of featured species and topics; you can also offer them programming ideas that you think would draw viewers;
- Think twice and ask questions before buying products made from sharks while keeping in mind that skates and rays (sharks’ closest cousins) deserve the same consideration with respect to purchasing decisions;
- Urge your government decision makers to work for national and internationalbans on removing shark fins at sea to prevent “finning” (slicing off a shark’s fins and discarding the body at sea); this is particularly relevant now in the European Union and United States; and
- Contact the agency in your country that is responsible for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and ask them to promote listing of commercially valuable, highly traded sharks and rays (the next CITES conference in March 2013).
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Photo credit: Terry Goss 2008 / Marine Photobank