For as long as I can remember, an exaggerated fear of sharks has strongly existed in our cultural and entertainment landscape.
Forty-four years ago, Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” helped turn sharks into a public enemy as many beachgoers subsequently became terrified to swim in the ocean. But Spielberg is not entirely to blame—he simply capitalized on our longstanding trepidation of shark attacks.
Cashing in on fright wasn’t new at the time, nor was exaggerating the truth. Since the release of “Jaws,” dozens of horror and suspense films that depict sharks as evil predators have been released, capitalizing on folklore and falsehood.
In the late 1980s, Discovery Channel began its annual Shark Week series. It was originally intended to educate viewers but quickly began producing sensational, fear-driven programming, doing more harm than good to the species.
Using shark terror as a playful marketing gag hasn’t ceased over time. In a recent Discover Card commercial, a young woman interested in booking an aquatic-related vacation suddenly changes her mind after seeing a shark up close in an aquarium tank and nervously stating, “Don’t want to get eaten …”
But is she really at risk of becoming a meal? Do sharks really prey on us? No. In fact, they’re not looking to eat us at all. We don’t naturally inhabit the ocean. In most cases, shark attacks are merely a result of humans getting in the way of actual prey, such as seals, crustaceans, and other smaller fish.
In 2018, the Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File investigated 130 incidents worldwide of alleged shark-human interaction. Sixty-six cases were confirmed as unprovoked shark attacks on humans, while 34 were confirmed as provoked attacks. The remaining 30 cases involved bites to marine vessels along with other cases that couldn’t be confirmed. The data for 2018 showed the total of unprovoked shark attacks was lower than average and, in the United States, only one fatal incident occurred.
Today, even with easily accessible statistics, we continue to view sharks as dangerous predators on human life; it’s just not true. The International Wildlife Museum in Tucson, Arizona, estimated that there’s a 1 in 3.7 million chance of being attacked and killed by a shark—significantly less likely than death by drowning or being struck by lightning, or even falling.
In fact, human–shark interactions are completely lopsided, as we kill 100 million sharks annually—that’s 11,000 sharks every hour. Among a variety of uses for their body parts—including medicine and fashion—shark-finning remains the most controversial. Fishermen remove only the fin and return the animals to the ocean, where they sink and slowly bleed to death. Shark fin soup remains popular in many Asian countries, fetching as much as $100 per bowl. In recent years, shark-finning has slowly been banned in more than 27 countries and 12 U.S. states, due to conservation awareness and governmental support.
Leading conservation organizations, such as Oceana, have helped educate populations and lobbied governments for bans and sustainable fishing alternatives. In recent years, Oceana has partnered with Discovery Channel for Shark Week, beginning this year on July 28, as the network attempts to pivot the conversation on sharks toward facts, rather than fiction.
The public perception of sharks may be misguided, but let’s face it—we need them. Their role as a keystone species is vital to the health of our oceans. If sharks disappear, ecosystems around the world will crumble, leading to a quick demise of our global fishing industry.
Perhaps, the time has come for an image makeover.
Raj Tawney is an essayist in New York and writes about entertainment’s impact on society. Recent contributions include the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, The Independent, LA Weekly, and Miami Herald.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.