A group of scientists, scuba divers and self-described shark lovers are using the blogosphere to publicize their criticism of the Discovery Channel’s “horror-show” portrayal of sharks during its annual Shark Week.
This loose coalition argues the Discovery Channel programming sensationalizes shark attacks and embellishes the dangers sharks pose to humans. While Shark Week may provide a handsome profit to the US-based network, it has created a generation of viewers that feel “sharks need to be hunted to extinction,” the group argues. They are circulating a petition calling for the boycott of Shark Week.
Shark Week, which has run on cable and satellite systems since 1987, offers Discovery Channel viewers a week-long series of documentaries and feature programs. Last year an estimated 29 million viewers around the world viewed Shark Week. As an example of its popularity, a different petition calls for the Discovery Channel to expand Shark Week programming to 24 hours per day.
Shark Week begins in the United States August 2 and runs a few weeks later in different regions.
From the group’s manifesto at the French Polynesia-based blog Discovery’s Shame:
The fact is that no shark species target humans for food and people all over the world swim and dive with sharks for pleasure—the same species that Discovery infers will attack and kill people.
Scientists who's work has been used for Discovery's Shark Week have found it twisted and misrepresented by the company. For those who are familiar with sharks, Shark Week is nothing more than tabloid journalism, and does not reflect modern scientific knowledge.
Until recently, even the dangers to sharks from overfishing was covered up by Discovery, because they considered conservation to be an unpopular subject.
According to most estimates, each year sharks attack 50 to 70 people and kill between 5 and 15. Between 20 and 100 million sharks die annually due to fishing.
The blog Sea Stewards: Sea is Our Sanctuary tells readers to “support rational shark programming.”
Despite promises in a meeting with shark advocates and filmmakers in New York two years ago to promote shark awareness Discovery Channel is still promoting the hype and fear of sharks in their sensationalistic Shark Week programming. We have a responsibility to raise awareness that promote sane and sustainable ocean practices. Sharks are an important component fo a healthy ocean and the fear and hype generated by shark attack films is harmful to sharks.
The Discovery Channel admits it employs attention-grabbing methods to bring in viewers. But the network says its web and television programming educates that audience about the value and plight of sharks. Instead of being sensationalistic, its television programming portrays the complicated relationship between humans and sharks, which is what viewers want to see.
David, a shark conservation graduate student in the United States, blogs under the moniker Whysharksmatter on the site Southern Fried Science. A few weeks ago he interviewed Discovery Channel Executive Paul Gasek on the controversy surrounding Shark Week.
[Whysharksmatter]WSM: Do you believe that how movies, the news, and networks like the Discovery Channel portray sharks affects how the public views sharks? For example, in the scientific community, it is widely acknowledged that the movie Jaws has encouraged public fear of sharks. We can’t help but notice that a poster for this year’s Shark Week bears a strong resemblance to the movie poster for Jaws. Though your website has lots of conservation information, do you believe that some of your programming promotes fear of sharks?
[Paul Gasek]PG: At Discovery Channel, we pride ourselves on telling compelling and accurate stories. Shark Week is no different. Two of our shows this year are based on actual historical events: one is about the first U.S.-based shark attacks on record, off the New Jersey shore in 1916, and the other is about the infamous summer of 2001 when more than 50 swimmers were attacked by sharks off U.S. beaches. It is a fact that sharks sometimes mistake people for prey and attack. In these, and many of our shows, we are digging deeper than the media headlines and telling the stories behind the stories.
WSM: Are you and other Discovery Channel executives aware of the following facts?:
A) Sharks kill less than ten humans a year
B) Less than 1% of shark species have ever bitten a human
C) Sharks play key roles in regulating ecosystems
D) Losses of shark populations have resulted in collapses of economically important fisheries
E) More than 100 million sharks a year are killed in one of the most wasteful, unsustainable, and brutal fishing practices on Earth…
F) Resulting in dozens of species suffering 95% or higher population declines in the last thirty years?
PG: We are absolutely aware of the plight – and importance – of sharks. And while we have millions of people watching our Shark Week programming (29 million people last year) and visiting our Shark Week website (one million people in July alone) we work hard to educate them about the importance of shark conservation.
Each year, Discovery Channel partners with Ocean Conservancy on a Public Service Announcement about the state of sharks which airs throughout Shark Week… We also dedicate a large portion of our website to shark conservation, using it as a tool to entertain and educate people.
The question-and-answer session sparked debate throughout the shark community. Here are a few comments from the Southern Fried Science site.
When it comes to television, people want to be entertained and networks want to entertain. By portraying sharks as menacing eating machines hungry for human flesh, thats entertaining to people. Its the same reason that people flock to the movie theatres for the next lame scary movie. We like to be scared. It may be “accurate”, but its the commercials, camera angles, music, tone of the commentary that bring across fear and misconception to the audience. Its the nature of media, bend the truth a little and sell it better, or give the stone cold boring truth.
No one is claiming Shark Week should be the “Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.”
Quite the opposite.
What everyone is saying is that you can make a million different varieties of insanely fascinating shark programs that aren’t about them being evil killing machines.
There is a HUUUGE divide between the conservation-oriented Discovery Channel website, and it’s television programming. Yes, choosing sensationalistic headlines may reel people in, but for those who don’t take the time to watch, it also sends a message.
While the debate raged on, the MarineBio Blog compared this year’s Shark Week to previous editions.
I hated that the Discovery Channel aired shows with that threatening voiceover, and all the fear-mongering worked into the script. People who fear sharks won’t respect the fact that shark populations are dwindling worldwide. The only thing people were “discovering” during shark week is that sharks are man-eating demons. There was very little mention of the true nature of sharks, which is that they’re apex predators in search of fish, and seals and other marine critters they find yummy. And that more often than not, human encounters with shark in the wild consist of the sharks swimming away – not attacking. Sharks are extremely important to balanced marine ecosystems. Without them, there’s a top-down cascade of ill-effects as shark prey begin to proliferate and take over – causing their prey-species to be depleted.
However, checking up on this year’s website, the author found:
To my surprise, most of the blood and gore has been replaced with messaging on shark conservation and it seems they’re planning to air documentaries about sharks that are informative and educational rather than shocking and gory. They even have a map of shark populations and their conservation status around the globe.
This year’s Shark Week features the following programs: Blood in the Water; Deadly Waters; Day of the Shark 2; Sharkbite Summer; Great White Appetite and Shark After Dark.
The innocuous-sounding Day of the Shark 2 has generated a tremendous amount of dialogue. The program – described as a “harrowing hour” – exhibits three separate shark attacks: the first when a great white breaks through a shark cage, trapping a diver inside; second, a former Navy seal is attacked in shallow waters and third a bull shark happens upon a spearfishing trip in the Bahamas.
In instances such as this, the blog Shark Divers doesn’t directly find fault with the Discovery Channel. Instead, the blogger Shark Diver takes to task film production companies who combine unsound diving methods with luring sharks in hopes of creating a dangerous situation in front of rolling cameras.
The other side of Shark Porn is more direct. Industry members who enable shark disasters operationally. This years Shark Week will feature one such video.
The operator behind that video has been telling anyone who will listen that this video was an accident, “a one time event”.
Unfortunately all of these claims are after event fabrications and he knows, as does the entire industry, that this video is just one of series of cage breaches at the same site by the same operator.
We have had enough. We have had enough of operators who cry wolf when things go wrong to operational errors that are the result of sloppy operations. We have had enough of operators who blame the videographer, or photographer for capturing their disasters and profiting from it. We have had enough of those few industry members who claim the moral high ground for sharks and yet deliver mayhem and disaster upon an entire industry.
If you are a current supporter of these few industry folks take a long, cold look in the mirror. There is no such thing as “an accident” in a baited shark situation and the myth of cage breaches as an acceptable part of our industry is just that, a myth.
Earlier this year production companies were scoping locations to film portions of the upcoming Shark Week. A dive company in Fiji tells why it refused assistance to a team who wanted to film a “Pro-Shark ‘documentary-entertainment’ show’.”
From the blog Fiji Shark Diving:
Titled “Deadly Waters”, the plan is to travel to the five “most dangerous beaches for Shark attacks” where the waters are “infested with Sharks” and conduct a series of “experiments” to determine what causes the attacks. The locations they have chosen are the Bahamas, South Africa, Oz, Florida and… Fiji!
A list of questions includes
– what makes these specific locations so deadly?
– do you have any documented Shark attack case studies….?
Well, we sent them packing – and I herewith formally apologize to those well-meaning friends who sent them our way thinking that they were doing us a favor.
Thing is, we were not only outraged by their unacceptable portrayal of Sharks and the stupidity of their new “experiments” – but also and foremost, because of the damage they were intending to inflict to the reputation of Fiji. Talk of “deadly beaches”and “Shark infested waters” is simply toxic for the Tourism Industry, the principal income earner of most Island Countries. Yes, also for the Bahamas whose image has already been tarnished by past and equally stupid programs.