Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Annual Shark Buzz: carrying the torch during Shark Week

I will be leaving tomorrow for the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, TN to be part of their campaign to promote shark education and conservation, piggybacking on the growing hype as Discovery Channel prepares to launch its 22nd year of Shark Week. Many aquariums recognize the popularity of this annual event and try to use it to their advantage, providing special events, screenings, lectures, etc. that will enlighten visitors to the many threats facing sharks today and what it would mean to the health of our oceans if sharks were no more.

For many people who are concerned with shark issues and the public perception of these animals, Shark Week is a very sharp, two-edge sword. On the one hand is Discovery's recognized success with this annual programming to attract a very large number of viewers. Think about it: year after year, far longer than most successful television series', attracting as many as 29 million viewers. In broadcasting, that represents an enormous revenue stream and, therefore, is typically a formula not to be tampered with.

On the other hand - or other edge of the sword, many shark advocates and conservationists object to the programming because it often focuses on shark-human interactions (aka shark attacks) and reinforces misconceptions or preconceived notions of sharks as malevolent man-eating devils. And there is a fair amount of validity to their concerns. Discovery has a Shark Week web site with a lot of pro-shark and conservation information in it (working with the Ocean Conservancy), but Discovery recognizes that using the general public's attitude about sharks as dangerous predators is what attracts viewers to the broadcast programming. It's television economics, plain and simple.

Sensationalistic? Over the top? Sure, but so is every movie trailer for a sci-fi film, comedy, or thriller. It's the nature of the entertainment industry and the Discovery Channel is no different. Yes, they have a quasi-science, quasi-nature, quasi-educational mandate, but they are also a for-profit company. So, until the ratings drop or the advertisers balk at the ad rates, don't expect Shark Week to change any time soon.

So what are the shark advocates to do? Well, they must carry on with their message. And it must be a message based on truth and facts: that sharks are predators - not puppy dogs - and that as predators, they play an absolutely critical role in maintaining the health of our oceans. Can we be at risk? From certain species in certain situations, sure. There is no getting around that and to portray those apex predator species as anything other than what nature evolved them to be, is actually doing them a disservice.

I have said in the past, shark conservation is a tough sell. I don't think we can take the average person's near primal fear of sharks and turn it into unabashed love (that seems reserved to the small band of avid shark advocates). No, our goal must be respect and with that an appreciation of the importance of these animals. You can't have the cute bunny without the coyote, the fawn without the wolf, the antelope without the lion - and you can't have the pretty reef fish or playful seal without the shark.

So this week in Tennessee I will be speaking to a group of Aquarium Day-Campers as to why they, as land-locked Tennesseans, should care about sharks. I will present my documentary to the Aquarium staff and docents to remind them as to the majestic beauty of white sharks and give them a taste of the ongoing research taking place to better understand these animals. And I will be giving presentations and conducting Q&As with the Aquarium visitors so that they can better understand the shark's role in the marine ecosystem. And, ironically, it will be Shark Week's sensationalism that will stimulate their curiosity to ask questions and learn more about the sharks that they fear.

We just have to make sure that we are there to give them the truth.

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