Shark Week. Everyone’s summertime binge, where you can spend days on end indoors on the couch and pass it off as educational.
The annual Discovery Channel program has been captivating viewers since 1988, and it is only becoming more popular. Now, it’s the longest running cable television event in history and raked in a whopping 34.9 million viewers in 2018 alone.
Shark Week has become a cultural icon in and of itself. Every single year from late July to early August, the internet is flooded with posts and news dedicated to this annual television event. Some die-hard fans have even been known to host Shark Week viewing parties with shark-themed merch, snacks and cocktails.
Whether you partook in the festivities this year or not, just about everyone in the U.S. — and in the 71 other countries where Shark Week airs — are at least somewhat familiar with the phenomenon.
If you aren’t so familiar, well, it’s pretty self-explanatory: an entire seven days of shows all about sharks. Literally only sharks. For seven days. The main purpose of the event, however, is not just to entertain but to educate by airing programs that promote conservation and make an effort to teach people about one of the Earth’s most mysterious, misunderstood creatures. However, it is unclear if Shark Week and the Discovery Channel actually aid in removing the harmful stigmas against our toothy, aquatic friends.
Sharks are one of the most feared animals on the planet. The fact of the matter is, they do not want to eat you. Actually, sharks have far more of a right to fear us than we do to fear them.
Humans kill around 100 million sharks every single year. The number of humans killed by sharks, on the other hand, is far lower. It is estimated that on average, there are about 84 incidents of shark attacks worldwide every year, less than one of which result in death.
You are far more likely to be killed by a mosquito, a deer or even a vending machine — which supposedly kill around 13 people each year, by the way. You’re even more likely to get struck by lightning than be killed by a shark. Isn’t that like, notoriously one of the least probable things to happen ever? So why are we so afraid of sharks?
The narrative of killer sharks has been around for centuries. Children grow up to believe that sharks live to attack unsuspecting people just out there surfing and swimming. Upcoming films like “47 Meters Down: Uncaged,” the cult classic “Jaws” and even the ever reality-defying “Sharknado” double down on the message that sharks are swimmer’s worst nightmare.
While the shows featured on Shark Week are meant to flip that narrative on its head, depicting programs in which shark scientists can be seen tracking tiger sharks, or trying to see what the day in the life of a great white shark is like, the titles and promotion of these shows still perpetuate the harmful myth.
Titles like “Hammerhead Invasion,” “Capsized: Blood in the Water,” “Monster Mako: Perfect Predator,” or the sheer fact that they still use the adjective “man-killer” to describe sharks further demonize the animals. Not to mention, programs that depict rare and brutal shark attacks, theorize that some sharks may have developed a taste for human flesh or show celebrities like Bear Grylls purposely provoking sharks to see if they might get attacked only further incite fear of the majestic creatures.
There is no doubt that these types of shows are sure to catch viewers attention and entertain, but they are unhelpful in the larger movement to promote shark conservation.
Sharks are now one of the most endangered creatures in the ocean, and it is only getting worse. So it is crucial that audiences are educated on why shark conservation is so important, and how they might be able to help.
Unmonitored shark fishing, the effects of overfishing on their food supply and even plastics and fishing nets in the ocean that trap sharks are just some of the leading causes of shark endangerment. If Shark Week put more of a focus on these issues, and aired programs about say, sustainable seafood, cleaning the oceans or even busting illegal shark fishing, then some of the more gory, Hollywood-esque documentaries wouldn’t be as much of an issue.
Even providing more information on the critically-endangered shark species would be helpful. It’s true, we stan a great white shark and it’s important to protect and destigmatize them too, but they aren’t actually as close to endangerment as others. Rare species like the daggernose shark, angelshark, and more well known species like the whale shark and great hammerhead are at risk for extinction.
There are a number of international organizations dedicated to protecting endangered species of sharks — The Ocean Conservancy, ProjectAware and the World Wildlife Fund, just to name a few. If the Discovery Channel was to put on programs that better promote some of the critically-endangered shark species and the conservation groups that defend them, then Shark Week could not only entertain millions, but make a huge difference.
There is no doubt that Shark Week is one of the greatest television events out there. It is truly thrilling to see how sharks behave in their natural habitats and learn interesting facts so we can further understand the great mysteries of the oceans. But, all too often, the message being delivered from some of the Shark Week shows seems more dedicated to scaring people than educating viewers about the crisis facing many shark species.
In the future, one can only hope that the Discovery Channel promotes less of the fearmongering programs, and more of the ones that show the beauty and importance of protecting the diverse species of sharks in our seas.
Until that happens, go ahead and enjoy Bear Grylls soaking himself in fish guts and offering himself up to the Hammerheads. Just remember to take everything with a grain of salt. Oh, and steer clear of those pesky vending machines. Now that’s what I call a man-killer.