Shark Week: the good and the bad

Does the list of Shark Week’s sins mean we should stop watching?

Perhaps instigated by the film Jaws with its iconic “dun dun, dun dun…” refrain, sharks spark fear, danger and drama in the public mind. Discovery Channel’s Shark Week originally set out to combat harmful misinformation about sharks, emphasizing conservation and protection for these mysterious creatures of the deep. Last week, Discovery continued its 30th annual dive into the lives of sharks.

There are many concerns about the accuracy and legitimacy of this programming; however, the awareness Shark Week brings to sharks and conservation efforts outweighs programming faults.

The concept of having a week-long shark-themed bonanza is brilliant. Unfortunately, Shark Week has become infamous for producing falsified documentaries, sensationalizing shark attacks and increasing fears instead of reducing them. The 2013 faux-documentary Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives confirms and perpetuates inherent fears of potential shark attacks. In 2014, “Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine followed a similar, pseudoscientific narrative.

While both specials peaked ratings for Discovery, the dangerous falsehoods undermine the purpose of Shark Week. Instead of showing sharks as a threatened species needing conservation and protection, Shark Week sometimes emphasizes shark attacks as a method to sensationalize these critical ecosystem regulators simply to bring in viewers.

“There are always about two or three shows at a minimum that are just straight attack porn,” said Jim Wharton, director of conservation engagement at the Seattle Aquarium.

Although Discovery’s past reputation is not without truth, things are changing.

Since Megalodon, viewers have demanded Discovery emphasize actual science. “Shark Week represents the largest temporary increase in how much Americans pay attention to any science or nature or environmental topic at all, of the whole year,” said David Shiffman, a shark conservation biologist. “Scientists and environmentalists can use this temporary increase in public attention to get real information out there.”

Most people don’t realize sharks are one of the most threatened animals on the planet and essential to our marine ecosystem. Unethical fishing methods diminish shark populations, and we need to take a more active role in shark conservation. Research has shown awareness helps; People who tune into Shark Week are more likely to support shark conservation efforts and take actions that are consistent with their support than those who don’t watch Shark Week.

We are more likely to work to save animals that we aren’t scared will kill us than ones we fear could fatally attack us. Separating sharks from the Jaws Effect can allow for productive conversations about how to save these endangered—not dangerous—creatures.

Shark Week also supports several media campaigns in efforts to increase mainstream awareness in shark conservation and sustainability efforts. Sharkopedia, a digital encyclopedia dedicated to saving endangered shark species, Shark Finbassadors, scientists taking over Discovery’s social media accounts, and Shark Week’s collaboration with Oceana in support of the Shark Conservation Act all play a part in inspiring big change for sharks and our oceans.

As viewers, what can we do?

Shark Week has the world captivated; last year, more than 15 million viewers tuned in worldwide. “One thing we can do is encourage audiences to watch the shows that we know are going in the right direction,” said Vicky Vásquez, a graduate student at the Pacific Shark Research Center. Staying educated and involved in programming is the most important thing we can do as viewers.

Our main priority should be participating in Shark Week in ways that make a positive difference for sharks. By steering clear of shows that portray sharks as aggressors and dangers to be wary of, we can show Discovery that we want the real story. Next year, research programming beforehand that educates instead of misleads, and contribute to shark conservation activism threads on social media and direct people to them.

Shark Week is doing more good than harm to sharks. It is wildly successful at putting sharks in the spotlight, and because of this attention and new knowledge, the public becomes more inclined to support shark protection. Going forward, our job is simple: determine which Shark Week shows are scientifically based, watch those, avoid faux-documentaries and educate others to do the same.

Please reach out to Discovery Channel and tell them you want a fully scientific Shark Week.