Shark Week: A Silly Gimmick or Good for Conservation?

July 2nd 2015

Ellery Weil

Discovery Channel's Shark Week is upon us. The one-week lineup of shark-themed programs is thrilling to watch, adds a nice dash of terror into beach season, and even encourages conservation. Right?

Well, sort of. While in theory Shark Week would be an excellent opportunity to educate people about sharks and their place in the ecosystem, the reality is that in recent years Discovery has focused on shows about vicious killer sharks and tales of carnage, rather than educating the public about an oft-misunderstood apex predator.

Discovery’s Shark Week is no stranger to controversy: three “documentaries” -- "Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives," "Megalodon: The New Evidence," and "Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine" -- proved to have about as much legitimate science in them as "Jurassic World." While an allegedly scientific channel like Discovery producing bogus content and marketing them as fact is bad enough, sensationalized “killer shark” stories contribute to dangerous misconceptions about sharks, ecologically important creatures which are in danger from rapidly dwindling numbers.

Sharks are crucial to the balance of marine ecosystems, helpful to humans in a variety of ways, and are being killed by humans in enormous, unsustainable numbers. In Western Australia, conservationists protested a controversial “shark cull,” which reportedly killed threatened species of shark, while largely neglecting to capture the shark species most dangerous to humans, the great white.

While some of the problems sharks face are due to simple over-fishing, others like the Australian cull and similar movements in particular, stem from an exaggerated sense of sharks posing a danger to humans. In fact, while sharks are commonly portrayed as the terror of the seas (and despite the recent spate of shark attacks) the average person in the United States is far less likely to die by shark attack than to be hit by lightning.

Obviously, Shark Week is not responsible for the plight of sharks. But are highly publicized programs with names like "Shark of Darkness" really helping? Probably not.

Luckily, Discovery Channel seems to have received the message. There are reports that in its 28th year, Shark Week will get back to its more scientific roots.

"We're focusing hard on the scientists this year and the research that a lot of the science community is engaging in with shark behavior," Howard Swartz, Discovery Channel's VP of documentaries and specials, told USA Today. "We're really hitting that hard this year."

So stock up on gummy sharks, fish sticks, and crisp summer ale for a week of shark education. Discovery "has embraced that role of being an advocate of sharks in a very positive way," director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote in Sarasota, Fla., Bob Hueter, told USA Today. Hueter will appear in the Shark Week program "Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba." And perhaps, once Shark Week has swum off for another year, consider checking out some real-world shark conservation movements.