In case you somehow missed it, Shark Week has once again descended upon us. The annual summer tradition created by the Discovery Channel in 1988 to raise awareness of sharks through its programming has in recent years seen its hashtag, #SharkWeek, explode across social media. Although some of the fictional content on Discovery has led to backlash from the scientific community, it’s hard to point to another publicity scheme that has garnered so much attention for one species and for conservation, with organizations like Oceana, WildAid and Conservation International deploying the hashtag on Twitter to shine a light on their causes and other media outlets coopting it to promote their own content.
Amid all the noise it’s important to remember why everyone’s looking at sharks anyway. Besides being magnificent physical specimens around for hundreds of millions of years, sharks are often the apex predators in oceans, and top predators maintain balance in their ecosystems. Despite their importance, sharks have moved from predator to prey as humans catch them for their fins and their numbers have decreased due to other factors, such as degrading habitat and falling victim to bycatch. They have also been vilified through media and, as a result, their attacks on humans send ripples of fear through us, especially those living in coastal areas, despite the relatively few attacks that actually take place.
That’s the point of a recent study from researchers at Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which shows that although the overall number of shark bites has increased in the last 60 years, individual risk of being bitten or attacked by a shark along the California coast has actually decreased significantly due to the fact that the population of coastal cities in California and the numbers of people partaking in ocean activities in the state has exploded over the same time. The authors of the study, which will be published later this month in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, conclude that conservation efforts for sharks and safety for humans don’t have to be at odds. By gaining more information about shark activity and behavior, the two can coexist. “Doing this kind of analyses can inform us on hot spots and cold spots for shark activity in time and space that we can use to make informed decisions and give people a way to stay safe while they are enjoying the ocean,” said Francesco Ferretti of Stanford, first author of the study, in a press release. Knowing that sharks migrate to Hawaii in the spring, for example, means that California waters will have fewer sharks and therefore may be more appealing to people for recreational activities. In fact, surfers who choose to surf the waters off Mendocino County in March are 24 times safer than surfing in October and November.
Although culling sharks is not a practice in California, it has taken place in other parts of the world and the study’s authors say that increased knowledge and data of both shark and human activity is a better way to minimize shark attacks on humans. “Our results indicate that the seemingly conflicting goals of protecting large predators and people can be reconciled,” study co-author Fiorenza Micheli told Stanford News.