Does shark conservation result in more shark attacks?

Captain Bill, image from

Meet Captain Bill Goldschmitt, an author, blogger, and commercial shark fisherman. Captain Bill is a passionate, opinionated, and influential man in the world of shark conservation and management. Unfortunately, the opinions that he chooses to passionately share are wildly incorrect. Captain Bill is a leading proponent of many ideas that have no basis in reality, including the notion that shark conservation efforts lead to an increased danger for humans from shark attacks.

He repeats this idea often on his blog. In recent months, he has written that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has declared “open season” on Florida bathers by even considering new shark protection efforts, pleaded with Shark Week to focus more on how dangerous sharks are and less on their dwindling numbers and ecological importance, and compared shark conservationists to those who apologize for al-Qaeda terrorists.

Captain Bill doesn’t just challenge shark conservation, he challenges the well-established basic facts behind the movement. He claims that shark attacks aren’t rare, saying “One idiot biologist claimed more people die from electrocution using toasters. I find these people pathetic”. He claims that shark populations aren’t declining, saying “They’re not becoming extinct, it’s just the opposite.” Perhaps most dangerously (to humans, that is) he mocked good advice to reduce the risk of being attacked by a shark, saying [International Shark Attack File Director George] “Burgess suggests that a bather should ‘swim with a companion to avoid a shark attack.’ Is this so you don’t get eaten alone, or you just reduce your chances of being eaten to 50%?”

All of his silly claims are, of course, demonstrably false. Shark populations are declining extremely rapidly all over the world. Captain Bill’s logic on this one is a little hard to follow. He claims that sharks can’t be suffering from overfishing because there is no longer a major U.S. commercial shark fishery. First of all, while the number of fishermen participating in the fishery has decreased, there is still a U.S. commercial shark fishery (he should know, as he works in it). Second of all, the reason that the number of shark fishermen has decreased is in large part BECAUSE of declining shark populations- current stocks can’t support a fishery as large as past stocks could.

Shark attacks are rare. Typically fewer than 100 people each year are bitten out of tens of millions that enter the water, and, of these, between 10 and 20 suffer major injuries or die. Every human death or injury is a tragedy, which is something that certain fringe environmental organizations would do well to remember, but the net benefit of having sharks around is much, much, much higher (in ecosystem services and ecotourism dollars among other things) than the cost of relatively few injuries and deaths. That toaster statistic that Captain Bill quoted, by the way, is accurate.

Most importantly, the notion that protecting sharks from extinction is a threat to humans is wrong. Obviously, if there were zero sharks in our oceans (as Captain Bill has advocated for), there would be zero shark attacks. This would not result in humans being safe at beaches (drowning, sand holes collapsing, boating fatalities,  skin cancer, heat stroke and car accidents on the way to the beach have long killed many more people than sharks), but that’s a topic for another day.

Reported shark attacks have, for the most part, been on the rise over the last few decades. However, this has been happening at the same time that shark populations have been declining globally, not increasing. It clearly isn’t the presence of more sharks that is causing the increase in shark bites, the central premise of the idea that preserving sharks will be dangerous to people. Some of this increase is explainable simply by improved communication technology- anything that happens anywhere in the world can now be reported instantly to anywhere else in the world. Most, however, has to do with more humans entering the water. It’s easier than ever before in human history to travel:  my great-great-great-grandfather probably never even saw an ocean, but I’ve been SCUBA diving on three continents. With many more people entering the water, an event that is extremely rare for an individual person becomes more likely to happen to someone- it’s just basic math. Don’t let that scare you, however- improved medical technology and beach response training has resulted in fewer and fewer shark bites being fatal each year.

Sharks are ecologically and economically important, and are declining at rapid rates throughout the world. Most reasonable people who look at the facts conclude that shark conservation is necessary and appropriate, and that stopping the ecologically devastating population declines of shark species does not pose a serious risk to human safety.  However, while I disapprove of Captain Bill’s strategy of making up ridiculous crap and demonizing everyone who disagrees with him (sharks as al-Qaeda? Really?) , the fact that he has such a strong following is a useful lesson:  most people haven’t heard the facts yet. He provides a wake-up call to the conservation movement that we need to do more to educate the people of the world about why sharks matter to the oceans, and yes, how people can protect themselves from shark attacks while going to the beach.

Captain Bill means well. In his mind, he is protecting innocent people from what he believes to be dangerous extremist ideology. Unfortunately for him, the facts aren’t remotely on his side, and it is never good to come down so strongly on the wrong side of reality.

October 6, 2011 • 11:30 am