Shark Week 2014: documentary reviews, tweets, and media coverage

Blogging, marine science, Natural Science, Popular Culture, Reviews and Interviews, Science, sharksAugust 26, 20142

Another Shark Week has come and gone, and despite being out of the country at the time, I’ve managed to keep up my record of never having missed a single Shark Week documentary. I gotta tell you, though, some of them are really hard to watch. While there there is undoubtedly some great educational programming focusing on science, natural history and conservation, the Discovery Channel is doubling down on the troubling recent trend of blatantly lying to viewers with fake documentaries that use actor playing scientists and CGI video. In a time when public misunderstanding and distrust of science and scientists is already high, the Discovery Channel has decided to actively perpetuate misunderstanding and distrust of science and scientists. I’ve included my reviews (which originally were posted on my Facebook page after each show) of each of the documentaries below, along with a link to the Storify of my twitter reactions and links to some of the media coverage.

Upwell held another successful Sharkinar, bringing together scientists, conservationists, communicators and educators to talk about how “Team Ocean” can best take advantage of the increased public interest in sharks during Shark Week. Indeed, many members of Team Ocean were able to use the temporary increase in public interest in sharks to get important messages out to the media, and I’ve linked to and summarized some of the best examples below, but imagine how much more effective we could be if we didn’t have to first debunk the lies aired on a supposedly educational non-fiction television channel?

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OpenROV is changing the way we think about ocean outreach and citizen science

ConservationAugust 16, 20140

The SS Tahoe, once the only means of travel across Lake Tahoe, lies in 150 meters of icy, alpine water, scuttled after she outlived her usefulness. The remote lake presents an extreme technical challenge for divers and the wreck has spent her afterlife relatively undisturbed. Only a few dive teams have ever visited her.

Naturally, she makes the perfect target to test out the new, deeper-diving OpenROV.

OpenROV from Fallen Leaf Films on Vimeo.

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5 simple things you can do to improve U.S. shark and ray management

fisheries, marine science, Natural Science, Science, sharks0

Sonja Fordham President, Shark Advocates International

Sonja Fordham
President, Shark Advocates International

Sonja Fordham founded Shark Advocates International as a project of The Ocean Foundation in 2010 based on her two decades of shark conservation experience at  Ocean Conservancy.  She is Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and Conservation Committee Chair for the American Elasmobranch Society, has co-authored numerous publications on shark fisheries management, and serves on most of the U.S. federal and state government advisory panels relevant to sharks and rays.  Her awards include the U.S. Department of Commerce Environmental Hero Award, the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award, and the IUCN Harry Messel Award for Conservation Leadership.

Most Americans by now must know it’s Shark Week, but did you know that the Discovery Channel headquarters are mere steps from the headquarters of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and that right now — and rather often — fishery managers in that NMFS building are soliciting comments on US shark fishing rules?

Photo by Sonja Fordham

Photo by Sonja Fordham

Shark Week is winding down just as several key opportunities to help US sharks are being announced. Aside from controversy over some programming, other shows, the associated press coverage, and the veritable social media frenzy have sparked a lot of concern for sharks, and sent many Americans on a hunt for things that they can do to help. I welcome that interest and am taking the opportunity to make a plea for some unique, hand-crafted comments and personalized testimony about timely policies for several particularly deserving Atlantic shark and ray species.

Taking these actions won’t be quite as easy as pushing a button on an automatic petition, but I believe – because of the relatively low profile of these species and the increased influence of original comments – that they can truly make a difference. If heeded, your advice can lead not only to better conservation of US shark and ray species, but also to better examples for other countries to follow. Here goes (see the hyperlinks for more information and contact details):

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Can Shark Week do more for its female viewers?

BloggingAugust 14, 20140

???????????????????????????????Vicky Vásquez is a Moss Landing Marine Labs graduate student under the Pacific Shark Research Center. Her Master’s thesis focuses on the soupfin shark population of San Francisco Bay. Before beginning her graduate program, Vicky worked in marine education for over 7 years with groups like the Ocean Discovery Institute and the Marine Science Institute. This work has fostered Vicky’s passion in outreach education with a special interest in working with at-risk students and under-served communities. She has continued this work as the founding Deputy Director of a new non-profit in San Francisco Bay, the Ocean Research Foundation (ORF). You can follow Vicky on Twitter @VickyV_TeamORF and get updates about ORF through their Facebook Page

Was anybody else bothered by Shark Week’s King of Summer campaign? I wasn’t at first. I thought it was hilarious! I found this light-hearted commercial of a guy riding two sharks to be on par with the ridiculousness of SyFy shark movies like Sharknado or Ghost Shark. It’s just too silly to take seriously.  More so, I was just relieved they finally moved away from their Snuffy the Seal theme which vilified and eventually killed a shark for eating its natural prey of seal. However, after watching the subsequent versions which include Bob the Shark and Rob Lowe, I couldn’t help but get a annoyed. What is with that freaking mermaid?!

So men are kings and women are mermaids?

Perhaps some of you may think I’m spoiling the fun of Shark Week by bringing this up, but the Be the King of Summer promotion reflects my point. People were asked to insert their own faces into this add. Although women did participate, they most commonly posted their faces as the mermaid at the King’s knees. I understand that this is all in good fun and obviously those women did too. However, very similar to this mermaid persona, is the growing number of women whose shark conservation work has been recognized for their sole approach of being sexy while swimming with large sharks. Despite that sounding like a jab against them, it really is not. My concern is that there is an equal number, if not more, women who are protecting sharks through research. For instance, there were 60 female scientists that presented research at the 2014 Sharks International Conference. Nevertheless, Shark Week predominantly features white male hosts and researchers despite the slowly growing number of women (as well as people of color) in the science and engineering fields. I therefore can’t help but wonder, where are they on TV? 

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A roundup of misleading, deceptive, and dangerous shows produced by Discovery Communications

BloggingAugust 12, 20141

It’s no secret that we’ve produced quite a bit of critical commentary regarding Discovery Communications (whose properties include Shark Week, Animal Planet, TLC, and many others) over the years. This Shark Week, we’re seeing a massive spike in interest around their less-than-factual productions. Here, for your convenience, is a quick roundup of articles we’ve written about misleading, deceptive, and dangerous shows produced by Discovery Communications.

The Big Three:

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Background information on our “trophy fishing for species threatened with extinction” paper

Conservation, fisheries, marine science, Natural Science, ScienceAugust 11, 20140

A giant pangasius, one of the Endangered species of fish that is targeted by trophy fishermen. Photo by user GV_Fishing, WikiMedia Commons

A giant pangasius, one of the Endangered species of fish that is targeted by trophy fishermen. Photo by user GV_Fishing, WikiMedia Commons

Andrew and I (along with several co-authors) have a new paper out in the journal Marine Policy entitled “Trophy Fishing for Species Threatened with Extinction: A way Forward Based on a History of Conservation.” You can read the paper here, and view the official press release here (will be up soon) .

We believe that this is an important topic that does not get enough attention, and we wrote the paper to review the scope of the problem, propose an easily achievable solution, and facilitate a long overdue discussion. Although we intentionally wrote the paper to be accessible to anyone, this blog post serves to explain the concepts and issues in the paper even further.  We are happy to answer any questions people have about the paper, just ask them in the comments section below.

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Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine is a fake documentary

Popular Culture, ScienceAugust 10, 2014114

Shark Week has done it again with their Shark of Darkness nonsense.  This show goes after everyone, from the whale watching industry, to shark cage diving, to South Africa as a country, and literally broke my heart to watch.

As always, a brief and vague disclaimer appears after all the credits have rolled.

As always, a brief and vague disclaimer appears during the show.

The fake-u-mentary is supposedly based in Hout Bay, but continually shows a map of Dyer Island and Geyser Rock and refers to Shark Alley that are all in Gansbaai, ~100km to the east.  So why would they say Hout Bay?  If you google “boat capsized in Hout Bay”, you will find that there was a boat which capsized outside of Hout Bay in 2012, killing 2 passengers onboard.  This boat was capsized by heavy swell in the middle of the day and had nothing to do with a shark, let alone a mythical one.  So I can only assume that Discovery Channel chose to include this very real tragedy in order to somehow legitimize their fake-u-mentary.  This is horribly insensitive. (more…)

Fin-Body Ratios for Smooth Dogfish – Depends on How You Slice It

Conservation, fisheries, Focus on Nuance, sharks, Sustainability, Underrepresented Issues in Marine Science and ConservationAugust 8, 20141

The 2010 Shark Conservation Act prohibits removal of fins at sea for all sharks landed in U.S. Waters, with a glaring exception for smooth dogfish, or smoothhound sharks.  In an effort to ensure that fishermen aren’t performing the cruel practice of throwing a still-living but finless shark overboard, a fin:body ratio of 12% for smooth dogfish became law as part of this bill.  This means that the total weight of smooth dogfish fins cannot be more than 12% of the total dressed weight of the bodies when the sharks are landed.

Some time ago I wrote a post questioning where this 12% ratio came from, especially since the best available published literature at the time suggested a ratio of only 3.5% for smooth dogfish.  The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Management Commission (ASMFC) responded, claiming that they had data backing up a find:body weight ratio of 7-12%.  Now, thanks to the SEDAR stock assessment workshop for this species, the study conducted by the ASMFC is publicly available (albeit nearly four years after it was written into the law).

So where does this seemingly extremely high fin:body ratio come from?  It depends on how you slice it.

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Megalodon: the New Evidence is a fake documentary

Blogging, marine science, Natural Science, Popular Culture, Science, sharksAugust 7, 20142

So was last year’s “Megalodon: the monster shark lives.”  Both Shark Week specials claim to show evidence that Carcharocles megalodon, the largest predatory shark that ever lived, is still alive. In both cases, the evidence is 100% completely and totally fake.

disclaimer

A disclaimer from “the monster shark lives”

Video evidence is CGI, images are photoshopped, and performances by actors claiming to be scientists and people who have seen a megalodon.  There is no marine biologist named Collin Drake, he is a fictional character played by an actor. The boat that a megalodon supposedly ate in South Africa did not ever exist. There is no doubt whatsoever among scientists that megalodon is extinct and has been for millions of years.

The documentary was debunked by fact-checking site Snopes, and criticized by CNN (an interview with me),  Forbes magazine,   and even the Daily ShowHundreds of other news articles* all tell the same story. Megalodon is extinct, and Shark Week made up evidence to the contrary for ratings. Worst of all, they have actively bragged about fooling people.


*A sampling of some of the many other articles criticizing Shark Week and the Discovery Channel for airing a fake documentary include Time MagazineUSA Today, National Geographicthe Huffington Post, Gawker  Business Insiderthe International Business TimesDiscover Magazine, the Oregonian, the ExaminerEntertainment Weekly, the Mary Sue, the Inquisitr, and US Weekly. Depending on your political leanings, you can even get the same story from Fox NewsBrietbart, and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze. Even the Wikipedia article notes that it is completely fictional.

The Dark Side of Academia

Blogging, Life in the Lab, Science0

ParsonsDr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in research projects in every continent except Antarctica. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) (the world’s  largest academic marine conservation conference) and is currently the Conference Chair and a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 100 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.

Listen, my Sith apprentice, strong in knowledge you are but there are those who are stronger and more intelligent than you, but to persevere and gain in status, strong in the dark side you must become. In these times funding is limited, tenured positions are few, and competition is great. Graduate students are many, and many of these have ideas for new research and new hypotheses that pose a threat to the current order. The hierarchy must be maintained with us at the apex, and no competition must be allowed.  Nurturing, cooperation, and egalitarianism -those are the characteristics of the light side and the light side is weak, and progress on the light side is slow. So my Sith apprentice, here is my advice to you to progress and succeed, especially when there are those around you who are more innovative, knowledgeable and intelligent than you.
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