Shark Week is a ratings bonanza for the Discovery Channel with more than 40 million people tuning in last year. Shark Week kicked off this last weekend with the more hours of programming than ever in its 28-year history. But many scientists think the huge audiences, and all the hype, have come at the expense of real science....and most importantly at the expense of sharks. There was universal agreement among scientist that Shark Week hit bottom two years ago with an infamous, fictionalized "documentary" about a 100-foot, 80-ton shark they called "the serial killer of the seas." Discovery resurrected the long extinct Megalodon and made up stories of sightings and attacks.
This year, according to Howard Swartz, who recently took over as head of development and production, said, "This year we're focusing quite a bit on research and science, more so probably than we have in the past."
Let's hope that last year marked the FINale of shark bashing that baits the public into believing that the world would be better off with these magnificent and important creatures.
It is, of course, true that sharks have killed people, but the numbers don't justify the fear or disdain. One person is killed each year in the US by sharks and fewer than six worldwide. From 2006 to 2010, there were just three fatalities from shark attacks in the US. Annually, 38 million sharks are killed and discarded after their fins are removed to make shark fin soup.
The importance of the ocean's apex predator affects the entire food chain and has a direct effects on human beings. In a single example, off the mid-Atlantic, shark populations were destroyed in the belief that it would increase the number of fish. However, this resulted in an overpopulation of cownose rays, a former shark prey. The rays depleted the scallop population and ended a 100 year old scallop fishing industry.
In Hawaii, scientists found that tiger sharks had a positive impact on the health of sea grass beds, which are an important environment for dozens of fish species and well as a breading ground for organisms which feed the fish. Turtles, which are the tiger sharks’ prey, graze on sea grass. In the absence of the tiger sharks, turtles grazed on the best quality, most nutritious sea grass, and these habitats were soon destroyed. When tiger sharks are in the area, however, turtles graze over a broader area and do not overgraze a single area.
We applaud the Discovery Channel for its change of focus on how to get high ratings for Shark Week. Let's hope that we all can begin to see how to rate the value of this vital link in the environment.