897 words • 4~6 min read

Shark reporting fail in my hometown newspaper

I was excited to see that today’s Charleston Post and Courier has a shark on the front page. The content of the article, entitled “Sharks Swarming“, inspired entirely different emotions. Much of the information it contains is either exaggerated to make the situation appear scarier than it is or is simply wrong.  Here are some examples:

“They’re sneaking up behind shrimping nets in swarms

Killer bees travel in “swarms”. With fish, the term is “schools” or “aggregations”. In addition to being correct, that term sounds much less menacing.

The word “sneaking” implies that there is something sinister going on. Spies and assassins sneak. You don’t really need to sneak up on shrimp that are immobilized in a net, they can’t really get away from you.

“Meanwhile, pier anglers all along the coast say blacktips are so prevalent that it’s sometimes tough to catch anything else,”

Fair enough, except that the cover photo is of an Atlantic sharpnose shark that someone caught at the pier. Lots of people incorrectly refer to these as “baby blacktips” because of the faint dark markings on their fins.

“(sharks) are really bad out there. I guess there’s nothing out there particularly to thin them out.”

Nothing to thin them out? Sharks species worldwide are experiencing precipitous declines, and many are on the verge of extinction!

“The fish has become a federally managed species, and its population has been steadily rebuilding after a dive in numbers from fishing pressure in the early 1990s.”

Yes, while populations of some species have been rebuilding, many are still declining and very very few are anywhere near what they used to be. I’m nervous about this line of reasoning- several news stories lately have tried to blame “increased shark attacks” on the success of shark conservation measures. This is preposterous for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that we haven’t seen increased shark attacks in the first place.

“Because the boats usually work in sight of the beach, ‘I can’t believe there aren’t more accidental bites (of swimmers).’”

An alternative way of phrasing this would be “even though there are lots of sharks nearby, shark bites are incredibly rare”. See how that conveys the same information but sounds less alarmist? At least the shrimper they quoted said “accidental bites” and not “malicious attacks”. In fairness to the author, this is a quote by someone he interviewed, but an additional explanatory sentence would hardly have been a major inconvenience.

In case you’re curious, the last fatal attack in South Carolina waters was in 1883. The gentleman in question died from infection resulting from a small bite. With modern medical technology he would have lived with only a minor scar. Over the last ten years, we’ve averaged approximately 3 shark bites a year- even though the blacktips are “swarming” nearby… as they do every single year. It isn’t really anything that you need to be concerned about when enjoying our beautiful beaches.

The article also includes a list of precautionary measures that people can take to avoid being bitten. These come from the International Shark Attack File and I have no issue with them per se, except that I don’t understand why they are included at all. This article is about sharks eating shrimp, not sharks biting humans. On a related note, the State Department has issued a travel warning to Africa because someone saw a lion eating a zebra.

In summary, blacktip sharks are aggregating off the coast of South Carolina like they do every year. They are eating shrimp and not threatening the safety of humans in any way. I don’t really understand why this is front page news, except that it is a minor inconvenience to local shrimpers who are already taking a huge hit resulting from a cold snap earlier this year.

To the credit of many Post and Courier readers, several of the online comments on this article reflect the knowledge that sharks are not a threat to humans. If you would like to post a comment, you can do so here.

I’ve read many articles by this journalist and he’s usually a smart and reasonable guy. I don’t know what it is about sharks and the media- it brings out people’s worst writing and fact-checking. I’ve e-mailed him and asked him to respond to the points I’ve raised in this post, and will keep you updated.

~WhySharksMatter

UPDATE: I’ve spoken to people who know more about local blacktip behavior, and they assure me that while the article indeed claims that blacktips are eating shrimp out of the nets, they really follow shrimping vessels to munch of the fish bycatch that is dumped overboard.