Shark Week offers pros and cons

USF researchers weigh in on debate over the costs and benefits of media attention

By Jennifer Rughoonundan, CORRESPONDENT
On July 6, 2017

SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

From bared teeth to blood-filled water, people have come to expect a montage of shark-based aggression from the annual Shark Week lineup on the Discovery Channel. 

Though the popular program — which starts July 23 — does offer benefits for the marine sciences, it could ultimately do more to highlight other work in the field.

“It’s not exactly cutting-edge science or anything, but it’s very visual and appealing,” said Cameron Ainsworth, assistant professor at USF College of Marine Science. “I think everyone has a natural fondness of sharks and it’s the same thing with nature programs like BBC, they always sort of put what’s visually appealing on the screen, but it’s a great way to generate interest.”

In featuring more work from the science community, Shark Week stands to draw more attention to critical areas of research, according to Ainsworth. 

“I’m not sure we’ve done enough to allay people’s fears about sharks,” said Steven Murawski, professor at USF College of Marine Science. “You have more of risk of dying because of a bee sting than you would ever have of with a shark bite.”

According to the Washington Post, sharks kill approximately one person a year compared to bees, wasps and hornets, which kill 58 people a year.

“A lot of the programming is somewhat sensationalized around the animals being dangerous animals, so I’m not sure we’ve really done them a favor in terms of people’s perceptions of their role in the environment, how dangerous they are,” Murawski said.

Research, such as developing nurseries for at-risk sandbar sharks and studying the biology of sixgill sharks by FSU researcher Dean Grubbs is not featured during Shark Week.

“We’ve caught 31 species of sharks for oil-contamination analysis,” Murawski said. “We’ve been able to look at fish communities and how they differ between the different regions of the Gulf of Mexico and we’ve collected samples from all of the fish. What we’re trying to do is build a baseline of oil contamination for when we have the next big oil spill come in.”

Shark Week presents the opportunity of promoting further conversation about the marine sciences, according to Murawski. 

“I think they could probably do a lot more in terms of inspiring people to go out and be involved in the environment, there’s a lot of opportunities,” Murawski said. “Shark Week is shark week, but it’s 52 weeks a year for the sharks. I think it’s great to highlight what’s going on with them one week a year, but where are the opportunities to get involved?”

Despite these drawbacks, Murawski said Shark Week has caused positive changes when it comes to the accessibility of the marine world. Instead of needing to kill animals in order to make observations, underwater camera crews can provide insight.

“Something that was invoked maybe 20-30 years was something called Kill Fish tournaments. They would have a big shark tournament off Montauk in New York and big shark tournaments all over the place,” he said. “I think one thing Discovery Channel has helped to do is say everybody wants to see big sharks but you don’t necessarily have to see them dead.” 

Additionally, Murawski and Ainsworth have seen the positive impact such programming created in the number of students interested in studying marine science and related fields.

“They’re a great recruitment tool for new students,” Ainsworth said. “The first exposure that a lot of people have is seeing things like this on Discovery Channel or other TV shows, like BBC, with scientific interests.”

As an introduction to the marine sciences, Shark Week has been able to provide basic information to the public to raise awareness about intriguing animals, such as sharks, and spark interest.

“There’s no doubt when the media is involved, people understand better about what the field is,” Murawski said. “They see a little bit about what people actually do as far as the job goes.”

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