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The Green Life: Protecting the Stars of Shark Week

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July 28, 2011

Protecting the Stars of Shark Week

Shark This Sunday, the Discovery Channel dives into the 24th season of Shark Week, which is only getting more popular: Last year netted a record 30.8 million viewers. To inform every shark fan about the creatures' dramatically declining populations and inspire action, Oceana and  Discovery teamed up this year to air a nightly "Save the Sharks" public-service announcement.

So while we're comfy on the couch watching "Top Five Eaten Alive" or “Killer Sharks,” the PSA is there to remind us that sharks are really the ones in danger, not humans. They may be powerful predators, but they're also incredibly intelligent creatures and lynchpins of our oceans' ecosystems. And they're in dire straits.

Sharks have been around for 400 million years, having survived mass extinctions. But they're faltering under the weight of human exploitation. Since they're long-lived and give birth to few young, they're particularly affected by overfishing and bycatch. Currently, 50 shark species are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, but only three of those are internationally protected.

Oceana is working to change that. Andrew Sharpless, its CEO, said, “This year, Discovery’s Shark Week is especially important as we are finding more and more opportunities to win protections for sharks all over the world.” He pointed out that Oceana has won two victories for sharks in 2011: January's passage of the U.S. Shark Conservation Act, and this month, getting Chile to ban shark-finning. "With Discovery’s help," he said, "we can put in place more protections for sharks around the world.”

Oceana, which works to "debunk this myth of the man-eating shark" is working with Discovery to incorporate more conservation-themed programming into Shark Week, given that the current lineup is more focused on rogue sharks with a “taste for flesh” than the species' magnificent biology or their population crisis. While a 15-second PSA is a step in the right, we hope it doesn't get lost in the feeding frenzy.

To learn more about Oceana’s work and their partnership with Discovery Channel, we at the Green Life spoke with Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, a marine-wildlife scientist at Oceana.

Q: Can you tell us about Oceana’s shark conservation work?

A: Oceana has been working on shark conservation for about five years now. One of things that we quickly noticed was that there was very little being done and very little awareness that there was even a problem with shark populations. People had no idea that shark populations are being decimated, and that they are really vulnerable animals. We also quickly realized it can be difficult to get the word out that sharks are in trouble.

Shark Week is the one time in the year when people go out of their way to stop what they’re doing and turn on their TV and see sharks, and people are just fascinated by them! We’ve realized that by working with Discovery , we can turn people’s attention to the fact that more needs to be done to protect these incredible animals.

Q: Is there any such thing as sustainable shark fishing?

A: Some species of sharks could be more sustainable than others, but it would be very difficult to have a sustainable shark fishery. What’s being done now, especially at the international level, is that some of the fisheries management bodies have started saying there are certain species that fishermen shouldn’t be allowed to keep when they catch. One of the things we’re encouraging the U.S. government to do is to say “no fishing” for some of these especially vulnerable species, like the hammerhead.

Q: What outcome are you hoping for with this PSA?

A: We’re asking people to come to our website and write to the National Marine Fisheries service, requesting the NMF to protect vulnerable shark species by not allowing fisherman to catch them. Last year, when people saw the PSA and were directed to the website, the request was about the Shark Conservation Act, which then a couple months after Shark Week did pass. We’re hoping we have the same effect this year, and that the government stops allowing species like hammerheads and tiger sharks from being killed.

Q: Do you also work with Discovery on the content of Shark Week? 

A: We do have conversations with them and we do make suggestions on content. There are still many episodes about shark attacks, but Discovery has definitely made strides in recent years toward finding new ways to entertain. There is one show this year called “Shark City” that doesn’t even have a person in it, other than Andy Samberg who is the Chief Shark Officer. The episode has nothing to do with people or shark attacks. It’s all about this group of sharks that lives in a particular place in the Bahamas. Things are definitely changing.  A lot of people are scared of sharks. But really, we should be scared for sharks, and we should be doing a better job at protecting them.

--Christa Morris

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