Attack of the Shark Lobby

How you look at things.
Sept. 7 2001 3:00 AM

Attack of the Shark Lobby

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

If you think it's been an embarrassing summer for Gary Condit or Little League baseball, think of the poor shark. One shark ripped an arm off a boy in Florida. A second destroyed a swimmer's leg in the Bahamas. A third inflicted a fatal 17-inch gash on a boy in Virginia. A fourth killed a man in North Carolina and tore off his girlfriend's foot. There have been dozens of lesser attacks, but you get the picture. Sharks have a PR problem.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Fear not. Marine biologists, shark-feeding tour operators, animal rights activists, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have come forward to denounce the media frenzy. They point out that this year hasn't been the bloodiest and that most sharks aren't out to eat humans. But too often, the apologists overstate their case. They claim that sharks are "gentle" and can be "trusted." Staying on dry land to avoid attacks is like "being afraid of the bogeyman," University of Miami Professor Samuel Gruber told the Washington Post. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, author Michael Capuzzo advised the public, "Go on in, the water's fine."

Welcome to Jaws V: The Spin. In this sequel, fast-talking flacks for man-eating predators prove they're out to lunch. Let's get a few things straight. Gentle creatures don't devour human limbs. The bogeyman doesn't bleed children to death. And the water wasn't fine for the two people who lost their lives to sharks in the three days after Capuzzo's op-ed appeared. Here's the bait the shark lobby is offering, and why you shouldn't take it.

1. Other animals and activities are more dangerous. Apologists say you're less likely to be hurt by a shark than by sunburn, bees, snakes, jellyfish, dogs, cars, lightning, or toilets. Fair enough. But sunburn can't kill you in an instant. Jellyfish and toilets aren't mobile predators. Bees don't eat you and don't attack unless threatened. Everyday dogs are domesticated. You can avoid a shark's habitat; you can't so easily avoid a snake's. You can recognize a situation likely to produce lightning; you can't so easily anticipate a shark strike. If a car comes at you, you might be able to steer your way out of disaster. If a shark comes at you, forget it. Gruber says "being hit on the head by a coconut" is a greater danger than a shark attack. Has he been hit on the head by a coconut?

2. This year's fatalities are coincidental. Apologists dismiss the recent serious attacks as "freak, unconnected events." The New York Times says they're "isolated incidents" and scolds those who imagine "there is something more than coincidence at work." Coincidence? Let's look at the data: shark attack, shark attack, shark attack, shark attack. How hard is it to grasp the connection? Second prize in the obtuseness category goes to the shark tour operator who told the Orlando Sentinel that the kid who lost his arm in Florida and the guy who lost his leg in the Bahamas "just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." Where was that place? The same place the tour operator deposits his customers: in the water with the sharks.

3. This year is no worse than others. According to the Times, scientists say "the recent global trend in shark attacks is down. … Statistics from the International Shark Attack File of the Florida Museum of Natural History, based at the University of Florida, show the global number of shark attacks is down this year, with 52 reported so far. The overall number was 84 for 2000 …"

Wrong. According to the ISAF's Web site, "Actual numbers of shark attacks certainly are going up each year," though the per capita rate hasn't changed. The ISAF's "2000 Shark Attack Summary" reports 79 unprovoked attacks on humans last year—"the largest tally since the ISAF began recording such statistics in 1958." That's roughly three incidents every two weeks. The 52 attacks reported in the first eight months of 2001 matches that rate.

Are the apologists embarrassed by these numbers? Not at all. They've got every angle covered. If the tally of attacks is low, they brag that it's low. If it's high, they persuade reporters not to overplay such freakish "coincidences." If it's typical, they say it isn't news. Sometimes they can't keep their story straight. The Florida Marine Research Institute, prodded by state tourism officials, recently began posting articles on its Web site downplaying the attacks. According to the Sentinel, "The first version carried the not-so-reassuring headline: 'Recent Shark Attacks Are Not Unusual Events.' Within days, it was amended to read: 'Sharks Bites Are Still Not That Common.' "

4. They're not attacks. They're accidents. Apologists attribute nearly all shark attacks on humans to "mistaken identity." As Capuzzo puts it, this year's attacks "are almost certainly accidental—in cloudy water, a shark mistakes a pale foot for a fish scale, and strikes. It is indisputable that sharks don't prefer human flesh, as anyone who has gone swimming in the ocean can attest." Anyone, that is, except David Peltier, the boy who was ripped open off the Virginia coast the day after Capuzzo's op-ed appeared. According to the Associated Press, Virginia's top shark expert has determined that Peltier's killer "was a marauding bull shark that probably meant to eat him."

True, most shark bites happen because sharks have poor eyesight and mistake us for easier, tastier prey. But why is this comforting? The bottom line is that they'll keep biting us. Sidestepping this unpleasant fact, the shark lobby defends sharks the way lawyers defend drive-by shooters who accidentally kill bystanders. The assailants, according to these shark advocates, are merely "confused" or "inexperienced juveniles" that are "out there trying to make a living." One marine biologist told Time, "I used to call them shark attacks—now I call them incidents. It is not a case of sharks preying on humans. It is just humans sharing a spot in the ocean with sharks—at the wrong time." Another scientist explained to the Post that sharks attack only when "humans get in the way."

In other words, blame the victim. A shark "must make quick decisions and rapid movements to capture its traditional food items," says the ISAF. "When these difficult physical conditions are considered in conjunction with provocative human appearance and activities associated with aquatic recreation (splashing, shiny jewelry, contrasting colored swimsuits, contrasting tanning, especially involving the soles of the feet), it is not surprising that sharks might occasionally misinterpret a human for its normal prey." If you tan, splash, or wear a bright bikini, you're asking for it.

5. The problem isn't an increase in sharks. It's an increase in people. According to ISAF Director George Burgess, shark attack "is largely motivated by the number of people in the water." Following this logic, Burgess and his colleagues argue that the only reason sharks are biting more people is that more people are available. Again, why is this comforting? "Shark attacks will drop off precipitously now that Labor Day has come, because there will be less human flesh in the water to be bitten," the Times predicts dismissively. How this prediction vindicates the Times, rather than the shark-fearing people it ridicules, remains a mystery.

6. We're more dangerous to sharks than they are to us. The real story is "not shark bites man, but man bites shark," says Burgess. "Humans have been killing off 100 million individual sharks per year by overfishing. Meanwhile, sharks are killing eight humans per year." So what? We're not sharks. We're humans. We're trying to figure out whether to get in the water. Shark-fishing statistics don't help us. Do you object to that cold calculus? Do you want to talk about responsibility? Then stop excusing every shark that maims a child while "trying to make a living."

Fortunately for the shark lobby, relief is on the way: Bears are invading towns in New Mexico. Last month, one bear mauled an old woman to death; another chased three boys and bit one; a third wounded a pair of Boy Scouts. Don't worry. It's just coincidence. The poor bears are unusually hungry this year, and anyway, they're just following their instincts. Trust me. I heard it from the bear lobby.

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