Most people have an irrational fear of sharks and the media is to blame with their brutal portrayal of the shark and the shark attack with its gore and sensationalism. It is this media-hyped fear of sharks that sells magazines, books and increases TV shows and film ratings. It is our morbid sense of thrill nurtured by the media that cause a fearful curiosity leading to an interesting fascination with this large predatory fish. In the newspapers and Media sharks have been framed as vicious killers who violently and spontaneously attack their unknowing innocent human victims. The media sensationalises each attack and uses discourse, which encourages the interest of the onlookers, which has already been built up over time through blockbuster movies, stories and reported shark attacks.
This perception was acerbated by Peter Benchley, (the author of “Jaws,” the novel which became the Steven Spielberg Hollywood film production about a fictional Great White), once said, “We don’t just fear our predators, we are transfixed by them.”
In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters.” (Benchley) In reality it is films like “Jaws” that have instilled this fear of sharks in humans. Time Magazine called 2001 the “Summer of the Shark.” Just off Pensacola, Florida a bull shark bit the arm off an 8-year-old boy this particular event started a media frenzy and since this event, any human interaction with a shark, no matter how insignificant, made front-page news. It is the journalists and reporters that villianize and stereotype sharks and this was no accident it was a deliberate ploy by the media to capitalize of humans’ love of fear. A tragic situation as it is the sharks who are now in fact in desperate need of our protection.
The other side of the coin a far more current environmental issues the declining numbers of sharks in our waters due to the human interference in their habitat. Sharks one of evolution’s most perfect creations. Many of them have not changed in millions of years and yet their populations are dwindling – Annexure C one hundred million years ago, sharks made up about 60% of the population living under the sea.
Today sharks only make up 3% of the marine population.(Walter 2011) They play a critical role in ocean ecosystems, they regulate the populations of all marine species below them in the food chain. When sharks are killed in large numbers there is a risk of the collapse of the balance of the ocean, which will have dire consequences. Studies are already indicating that regional elimination of sharks can cause disastrous effects. These include the collapse of fisheries and the death of coral reefs. (Friedlander) By looking after sharks, we look after the oceans and our future as well. Sharks pose minimal risk to humans and yet we seem hell bent on destroying their habitat and in doing so killing them off.
Bringing awareness to the environmental plight of sharks is definitely a tough one because very few people have any empathy for them after all these are people who have been influenced by media hype and exploitation of the shark deadly mystique. At the end of the day it has to be up to “responsible media” – refers to a media who can see past the sensationalism aspect and one that is not motivated by greed or money to reverse the negative perceptions of these animals. These are the people who have the power in society to do this in order to bring about change that will protect and sustain these animals. It must be left up to this media to define this environmental issue through well-orchestrated, emotive communication strategies.
We are invading the sharks’ habitat not only by our recreational activities but also by altering the sharks’ natural behaviour by interfering with their natural lifestyle and environment and then make a song and dance about the tragic consequences of our unnatural intervention with these predatory creatures (like a shark attack). We were never meant to co-exist we are terrestrial beings not marine creatures. It is our selfish wants and desires that disturb the balance of life in the ocean.
Reasons why sharks have attacked are investigated and debated at length. These reasons being varied ranging from increased recreational use by humans of the ocean, chumming the water (is the act of luring animals, usually fish or sharks, by throwing “chum” into the water. Chum often consists of fish meat, which attracts fish, particularly sharks due to their keen sense of smell). This is often done purely for shark viewing. It is seen as an adrenaline rush to shark dive as the dangers of the creature although somewhat true to be a sport with playing with ones life and a feat to achieve. Yet sharks in the academic world of marine studies have been stipulated to be passive creatures that eat to survive.
Overfishing and depleting the sharks food sources, cage diving, global warming has also been blamed because it affects ocean temperatures and currents and even low cost travel has been blamed for the increase in shark attacks enabling people to swim, snorkel, surf or dive in places that previously had no human presence. Man are killing sharks for medicinal purposes (believing they could hold a cure for cancer) or eating them in shark fin soup (which is considered a delicacy in China). Our shark nets and drumlines that are killing our marine life including sharks at the rate of knots. Many diverse reasons that have one thing in common – they are all caused by man to fulfill his needs and wants.
A five-metre great white shark killed a surfer at Kogel Bay just outside Gordon’s Bay on the 19 April 2012. In the weeks before this attack, chumming had made headlines because of filming for the documentary” Shark Men”, which involved research being done in False Bay and on the southern Cape coast. A tragedy which the voracious media leapt on. After all it is stories like this that sells magazines and newspapers. There was a dip in the media around this issue until the attack of the young surfer arouse. It was only after the attack that the environmental affairs department cancelled the permits enabling the programme and research to go ahead. (Dolley 2012) Too late for one promising young springbok board surfer but a golden opportunity for the media who have a conscience and look for answers beyond just the gory, sad story!!
Statistically the number of sharks that attack humans every year is a minuscule average of 5, in comparison to the number of shark deaths caused by humans globally is huge at 100 million a year- that is 11,432 every hour.( Leeper 2004)(This has forced many species of sharks into the critically endangered category of endangered animals. Yet everyone appeared to be up in arms from conservations, ecologists, marine biologists to the public because of a death of a surfer – an emotive and emotional story. The good news is that this tragedy allows sectors of the media to focus on the shark not as the deadly predator responsible for a death but rather as a victim of his circumstances.
Environmental issues that man has brought upon this animal to his complete detriment. It seems ironic that a violent shark attack brings more focus of sharks due to the publicity of the incident and thereby bringing awareness to the plight of these creatures. An opportunity that is not lost on those who want to bring their side of the issue into the forefront of the public eye.
The initial media frenzy is focused on the actual attack with all it’s graphic details and sensational photographs seen on the front pages of the newspapers, on TV, blog sites and on the internet. The positive repercussion is that people start questioning and debating the reasons for the attack, interest in sharks and consequently their predicament is heightened. A perfect platform for eco journalists who have the communication tools to publicize the environment issues that pertain to the sharks. To use their powers of persuasion to influence interested parties to see the shark not as a monster but an animal who is fighting for it’s own survival and the underlying reasons for it’s unnatural behaviour. It is the media that defines environmental issues in order to bring about change for the betterment of our seas and the world.