Quick comment re: Shark Week

Hark! A Shark! Great White offshore of Mexico. Credit: Wikipedia user Sharkdiver88. Public domain.

In the throes of this year’s rendition of Discovery’s cacophony of teeth and excited narration, I think it’s prudent that we keep in mind that sharks are way, waaaay down the list of things that could potentially kill you. In 2011, for example, there were 75 total, both fatal and non-fatal, shark attacks. Loss of life is tragic, and there is always some risk associated with being in the ocean. That being said, you have a enormously higher chance of falling victim to car accidents, the flu, drowning, lightning, cancer, heart disease (these and more at this list, a small sampling, but I think you get the idea) than to the great toothy beasties of the deep.

For a longer, and generally more complete take on that, see this post I wrote on the onset of last year’s Shark Week (located an embarrassingly few number of posts down from this one).  If you’re interested, here’s the page for the International Shark Attack File, and here’s the summary for the 2011 shark attacks.

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Shark week and some numbers

The Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week, a week of television programs devoted to these toothy ocean residents, began yesterday.  Shark Week has introduced many people to the wonder of these unique predators, the likes of which help to keep ocean ecosystems balanced, and usually includes bits on shark conservation and other scientific content.  If you head over to their website there’s a nifty interactive map where you can click on different regions and learn about what species of sharks frequent those areas and even what their conservation statuses are.  There’s also a shark facts page with shark conservation information and states that you are more likely to get bitten by another person than a shark.

However, in regards to the high-profile television programs themselves, many of the titles  evoke images of attacks, such as ‘Rogue Sharks’ and ‘Killer Sharks.’

Over the years, the media in general has not been kind to these animals, giving disproportionate attention to, as John Bruno over at SeaMonster puts it, “sharks behaving badly, i.e. eating stuff.”  However, the reality is that tens of millions of sharks are being killed every year, and the populations of these ecologically important creatures are declining globally.

Six fatal shark attacks were reported last year globally, according to the International Shark Attack File.  73 non-fatal attacks were also recorded.  Loss of life is tragic, and I am certainly not attempting to play down any individuals’ experiences who were harmed by sharks, but these sorts of numbers do not justify an all-out fear of these animals.  For example, in 2008 (the latest year data seems to be available), 39,000 people in the United States were killed in car accidents, and most of us view traveling by car as a reasonable risk.  For some other comparisons, you can see the Florida Museum of Natural History’s ‘Relative Risk’ page.

I’m not trying to pick on Discovery, which over the years, has gotten many people more interested in science.  Nor am I implying that you should rub seal innards on yourself and try to give one of these big fish a peck on the cheek.  But sharks need our help—that is, we need to stop decimating them.  And that does include considering the economics and motivations of the fin trade and presenting people with an alternative.

Be sure to check out SeaMonster, Deep Sea News, and Southern Fried Science for more on Sharks and Shark Week.

Image 1:  Caribean reef shark, Alfonso Gonzàlez on Flickr (CC). Image 2: Windell Oskay on Flickr (CC).