Sharks, such as this great white, make for good TV.

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Sharks, such as this great white, make for good TV.

For shark scientists, Shark Week is a blessing and a curse

There’s little question that television viewers look forward to the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” programming about the toothy creatures—this week’s opening lineup drew nearly 4 million viewers, a record for the 27-year-old fin frenzy.

Specialists in shark behavior, however, aren’t as thrilled. They say that although Shark Week promotes public interest in sharks, the programs often misrepresent what scientists know about the animals and how they study them. Researchers also worry that Shark Week sends mixed messages that may hurt conservation efforts.

On the positive side, says Yannis Papastamatiou, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, “it is quite possible that Shark Week deserves some credit” for “a big change in public opinion over the last 15 years” that has made sharks less alien and threatening to many people. But a downside, he adds, is that the documentaries often exaggerate researchers’ knowledge of shark behavior. The result: The public comes away believing that scientists know much more about sharks than they actually do.

That misperception may be one reason researchers can have trouble getting funding for studies of shark behavior, says Christopher Lowe, a marine biologist at California State University, Long Beach, and president of the American Elasmobranch Society. Shark-sighting statistics, for instance, promote the idea that sharks are most active at dawn and dusk, but there’s very little scientific evidence supporting the idea. When Lowe and his colleagues proposed to study the issue, however, “We were told: ‘Well, don’t we already know the answer to that question?’ ”

Researchers also complain that Shark Week veers into hype and pseudoscience. Last year, a program titled “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” claimed the ancient shark may still be alive and hungry in ocean waters. This year, Shark Week aired the faux documentary “Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine,” about a supposedly submarine-sized great white shark that attacked people off South African coasts.

One big problem, researchers say, is that Shark Week’s emphasis on shark attacks raises a thorny question for conservation: Can people become enthusiastic about protecting something they’re afraid of? “Most [shark] species are suffering some level of decline,” says George Burgess, director of shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. About one-half of the world’s some 465 species of sharks are considered threatened or endangered. But “it’s hard to get people to rally around a species or a population that’s been impacted,” Lowe says, “if they fear them.”

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