Although it’s impossible to provide an exact count of how many sharks are swimming in the sea at any given time, there’s one thing scientists can agree on: that number is going down, and quickly.
A 2007 paper called “Cascading effects of the loss of apex predatory sharks from a coastal ocean” used data from a fishery-independent survey in North Carolina state waters that has been ongoing since 1972. Southern Fried Science reports that all of the large sharks in the survey have decreased in population in the last 35 years, some by more than 90 percent.
While scientists are certain that sharks are in decline, the reason why is less concrete. Fishing, habitat destruction, shark finning, and climate change all put negative pressure on shark populations, but none bear the blame completely. In fact, a new study from Michigan State University suggests that the media may have more to do with dwindling shark numbers than any of the above.
The study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Conservation Biology found that media in the United States and Australia were more likely to focus on negative reports featuring sharks and shark attacks rather than conservation efforts. The inclination to focus on sensational stories about negative human-shark interactions skews public opinion, says researchers, and could make it think that killing of sharks is desirable.
“The most important aspect of this research is that risks from – rather than to – sharks continue to dominate news coverage in large international media markets,” said Gore, part of the research team led by Bret Muter, formerly at MSU and now with the Udall Foundation. “To the extent that media reflect social opinion, this is problematic for shark conservation.”
According to the study, more than 52 percent of global coverage focused on shark attacks on people, and sharks were portrayed negatively in nearly 60 percent of the coverage. That’s compared to a mere 10 percent featuring shark conservation issues and just 7 percent focusing on shark biology or ecology. Likewise, researchers found that when conservation organizations are contacted with regard to a shark story, it’s almost always to provide quotes about the danger they pose to humans. Conservation experts were almost never quoted when the story was about trying to save or protect sharks.
One great example of this is the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week series. Once a year, the network crams hundreds of hours of shark-themed programming into a single week. Millions of viewers tune in, yet instead of including information about how important shark conservation is to the health of our oceans, most of the shows focus on shark attacks, the killing power of sharks, and the most terrifying shark species. This is a missed opportunity, and according to the Michigan State study, one that could be most deadly for the sharks themselves.
Image via Thinkstock
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