The strange bargain of "Shark Week": Salon talks to a marine biologist about Discovery's annual event

"In many ways it keeps me busy," says Dr. Chris Lowe. "I don't know if that's a good thing."

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 24, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

A view of a great white shark. (Discovery Channel)
A view of a great white shark. (Discovery Channel)

Sharks are what’s known as a “celebrity species” amongst biologists, conservationists and, perhaps this goes without saying, the entertainment industry. Even when “Shark Week” isn’t in full swing, as it is right now on both Discovery Channel and Nat Geo Wild, these marine wildlife superstars are famous enough to capture our collective imagination, inspire donations to fund their preservation, and play upon our anxieties.

The sinister mystique surrounding these creatures is why “Shark Week” came into existence in the first place, and it remains a summertime TV tradition nearly 30 years later. Since 1988, Discovery’s week-long primetime event reliably lures in viewers and ad revenue for the network. And its arrival also leads people to question whether this celebration is doing more harm these days than good. To answer that question, Salon reached out to marine biologist Chris Lowe, who is the director of the Shark Lab at California State University at Long Beach.

Lowe lends his expertise to “Sharks and the City: LA,” which airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Discovery. Because of this, a reader might suspect, is where he falls on the pro-con spectrum of the “Shark Week” debate. But not so fast — Lowe also is a researcher and educator during the 51 weeks of the year that Discovery’s event programming isn’t airing.

“In many ways it keeps me busy,” he told Salon. “I don't know if that's a good thing. I think there are probably better ways to keep me busy.”

While Lowe sees merit in Discovery’s efforts to raise awareness about sharks behavior and habitats, “the flip side of this, and I know this sounds weird, but my biggest battle right now isn't dispelling myths about sharks, it's dispelling myths about shark research funding,” he said. “I think Discovery has kind of made it more difficult. We're constantly grubbing for money to do this work, and the reality of it is at the state and federal levels, sharks don't get a lot of money unless they're endangered or we eat them.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund there are more than 400 types of sharks in existence right now, although the count is wildly imprecise. What we do know is that many of these populations are endangered or threatened, and their decline is deleterious to the heath of our oceans’ ecosystem. These apex predators keep other populations in balance, and they also mature very slowly and produce fewer offspring relative to other marine species.

Between falling victim to being accidentally caught by commercial fishing vessels and hunted for their fins, the central ingredient in a pricey soup that’s popular in Asia, some 100 million sharks are killed each year.

The majority of “Shark Week” fare plays into the popular image of sharks as the manhunters of the sea. That's why these days Discovery primarily focuses on the entertainment value of sharks, with science serving as an auxiliary to that idea. The channel has learned from its low point in 2013, somewhat, when it passed off pure fiction as a documentary about a prehistoric 50-foot-long shark titled “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.”

The resulting backlash pushed Discovery to refrain from passing off fantasy as fact in these shows.  Instead, “Shark Week” markets itself with celebrity stunts. This year’s Week kicked off on Sunday with a widely promoted race between Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps and what ended up being a computer simulation of a great white shark. While that should not have surprised anyone, apparently a few people were ticked off at witnessing what they saw as false advertising.

Maybe they’ll be comforted by knowing they can count on the entertainment integrity of “Shark Week” programs as “Alien Sharks: Stranger Fins,” “Devil Sharks,” “Shark Storm” and “Sharkmania.”

Nat Geo Wild’s “Sharkfest” offers “Tiger Shark Terror,” “Shark Swarm,” “Shark Frenzy!” and three episodes of “When Sharks Attack” on Friday.

Don’t forget that these join a pantheon of shark horror movies starting with “Jaws” and more recent titles such as “The Shallows” and “47 Meters.” And on August 6, Syfy’s own summertime shark tradition returns as “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming” makes its debut.

“At least ‘Sharknado’ is kind of campy, right?” Lowe said. “There's nothing realistic about it at all, which means in my opinion, the public can look at that and go, "Well that would never happen." But with things like ‘The Shallows ‘and ‘47 Meters,’ what makes those scarier to the public is the fact that there's a little bit of reality in there, and then of course there's a bunch of unrealistic things about shark behavior that we've been trying to dispel.”

Addressing the Discovery and NatGeo practice of giving their shark-focused documentaries titles that resemble B-movies, “that recipe has been effective in terms of getting people to watch, but it does make my job harder because we need to get people to overcome that fear, and it's hard to do when every summer the same formula of movie comes out over and over again portraying sharks as they're gonna hurt you,” Lowe explained.

“Nonetheless,” Lowe continued, “if I can interject some science into it and try to get people to look at sharks differently based on what we really know about them, then that interest may actually eventually turn into concern and willingness to protect them.”

Based on its description “Sharks and the City: LA” may speak to a positive story about sharks; Lowe is noticing that populations in the U.S. are recovering. What this means is there’s an increased likelihood that Americans may interact with sharks in the ocean.   “We want to start to make people aware of the fact that they may see a shark in the wild [but that] doesn't mean that they're going to be bitten, even though that kind of connotation is in much of that programming,” he said.

Of course, Lowe added, when sharks do bite people, that creates a national news feeding frenzy. But those incidents bring him back to his original point: “Answering those key questions about what sharks do, and why they do what they do, and how can we keep people safer — that requires funding, but nobody wants to pay for it.”

Conservation efforts, he explained, are privately funded by a range of groups, most of which do not give money to science. For that matter, neither does Discovery Channel.

“The one thing about National Geographic that's always been great is they offer grants. I can apply to Nat Geo for a grant, and they in turn get first dibs on any video, pictures, things like that,” Lowe said. “We've been pushing Discovery hard to do the same thing, and I think it would be great if they did. That's a great way to support and promote shark research and conservation, and they would have things to show in the future.”

A bright development for which Lowe gives Discovery credit is that he’s noticed that most of its "Shark Week" line-up features credible scientists. “In the past, that hasn't been the case,” he said. “People who [would] go out and swim with sharks a few times were calling themselves experts, and Discovery was billing them as that. And that was just wrong. At least now there's a group that legitimately does shark science, and it's always that battle that we have, to try to keep it toned down and keep that educational message there.”

Having said that, the week is closing out with “Shark School with Michael Phelps,” an hour in which the experts dispelling the myths and common misconceptions about sharks receive lower billing.

“Their argument is it's about entertainment, and I always say that's fine,” Lowe said. “Just be careful when you start to call this education because that's where as an educator I have to kind of step in and go, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's really focus on education if you want to go that direction.’"

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Discovery Channel Michael Phelps Shark Week Sharknado Tv