Shark Week, which is now in its 33rd year, is the longest-running cable event in history, with 27 million viewers—a huge audience for marine biologists and conservationists.
The goal of Shark Week, according to Discovery Channel, is to bring attention to the most recent scientific findings on these underwater predators and to inspire conservation efforts for these sometimes misunderstood creatures.
In today’s world, shark conservation is critical. According to Lisa Whitenack, an associate professor of biology and geology at Allegheny College, about 27% of cartilaginous fish, including sharks, are estimated or judged to be threatened with extinction.
According to academics, however, the iconic week of television may be harming the very people it is supposed to aid.
Shark Week fails to achieve this purpose, according to a discussion delivered by Whitenack at the American Elasmobranch Society (AES), an organization committed to the research of sharks, skates, and rays.
Shark Week frequently portrays sharks badly, airs falsehoods, and fails to effectively represent shark experts, according to the study, which is presently under review at PLOS one.
Sharks play an important role in underwater ecosystems as the apex and mid-level predators.
These colossal animals guarantee species variety and healthy competition by devouring weak and diseased fish.
Shark extinction in particular environments has been linked to a drop in coral reefs and seagrass.
Efforts to conserve these nimble aquatic dwellers are critical for the survival of even the tiniest sea creatures.
The lessons learned after watching hundreds of hours of Shark Week
It took hours of binge-watching to grasp Shark Week—around 201 programs out of 273 were aired throughout three decades of shark fanaticism.
Whitenack, whose research generally focuses on shark teeth and the evolution of these strong swimmers, says, “We watched a lot of TVs, practically as many episodes as we could get our hands on.”
The researchers discovered that over half of the programs featured unfavorable imagery of sharks or remarks about sharks, such as calling them killers or characterizing them as chasing humans, which sharks rarely do.
Only a few dozen shark species out of over 300 have been known to attack people.
Sharks prefer to eat seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals, so if they do, it’s probably a mistake.
Shark bites were also the third most prevalent episode topic, with terms like assault, terror, deadly, and monster appearing in about 22% of episodes.
Only six programs provided viewers with actionable recommendations for helping shark conservation, such as donating to conservation efforts.
But, at the same time, more than half of the programs referenced shark protection and its significance in the ecosystem, even if just briefly.
“There was a lot of negativity with a quick positive or pro-conservation message at the end,” Whitenack says.
Viewers may be confused by the contradictory message, especially when it is combined with violent, theatrical reenactments of shark attacks.
“I can say that there were a lot of difficult times of stuff that was over the top in reenactments for me,” Whitenack adds.
“I have two children, ages eight and eleven. They, like their mother, are big fans of sharks and enjoy viewing some of these episodes.
They didn’t appreciate seeing the blood, and neither did I want them to see all that gore.”
Another source of worry was the fact that approximately 22% of the 204 “experts” featured on the show had no published research.
The most frequent expert, who appeared in 43 episodes, lacked scientific qualifications.
According to Whitenack, “some of the persons who are being promoted as shark experts are either filmmakers or divers.”
“They are professionals in underwater cinematography and diving with sharks, but it is not the same as knowing everything there is to know about shark biology and how they work.”
Sometimes the stories given had nothing to do with science at all—16% of episodes had no scientific research at all.
and 7% are based entirely on myths and legends about sharks that never existed.
For example, during the Pliocene epoch, Shark Week aired a fake story on Megalodon, the world’s largest shark, which went extinct about 2 to 3 million years ago.
According to Whitenack, there was a brief caution about the story’s fictional origins, but the message didn’t resonate with viewers.
In fact, according to a Discovery poll performed after the show aired, 73 percent of viewers thought the Megalodon was swimming in the deep seas.
The lack of variety among shark experts presented was the final issue Whitenack and her colleagues discovered.
Nearly 79 percent of respondents used male pronouns, and 93 percent identified as white or white-passing.
This is exacerbated by the fact that filming takes place in countries with mostly non-white populations, such as Mexico, the Bahamas, and South Africa.
According to Whitenack, 55 percent of AES members are female today, and 33 percent do not identify as white, so there is no shortage of diverse shark specialists.
How may Shark Week be made better?
Despite these alarming figures, Shark Week offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to educate the general public about the value of these sea-dwelling predators.
Even though many episodes of Shark Week had issues, Whitenack claims she identified a couple of favorites in the show Alien Sharks that were “factual and real.”
“We’d like to see a lot less fear-based and conflicting programming and a lot more fact-based and positive programming,” says the group.
“We want to send a strong, positive message about sharks,” Whitenack says.
“We’d also like them to include meaningful conservation information, so they’re not simply saying sharks are endangered or vital to the ecology, but also offering people methods to help.”
Voting for politicians who support marine conservation activities, joining conservation petitions, and donating money to conservation projects are all examples of ways individuals can aid sharks, according to Whitenack.
And by broadcasting that information rather than dread and panic during one of television’s most memorable weeks of programming, these mesmerizing creatures can continue to grace our screens for years to come.