August 2, 2018

The iconic cover image of Peter Benchley's novel  Jaws , published in 1974. The book and movie had a long-lasting impact on public perception of sharks, particularly the great white. 

The iconic cover image of Peter Benchley's novel Jaws, published in 1974. The book and movie had a long-lasting impact on public perception of sharks, particularly the great white. 

I had a conversation the other day with a fellow PhD student back in California. “Have you seen blue sharks? They’re beautiful,” I told him. His answering question was an interesting one: “Is that beauty what inspired you to become a scientist?” I dwelled on this long after the conversation was over, because while I am fortunate to study such charismatic animals, it’s not necessarily beauty that motivates my research (I would actually argue that the basking shark is one of the more goofy-looking species). What I find fascinating is the stigma surrounding sharks in general, which often stems from how little we know about them. At a broader level, though, this conversation reminded me just how powerful our words can be. How could my friend have known my motives for research just from my one comment? The term “beauty” stood out to him and influenced his interpretation. In this one instance it was harmless, especially because my friend followed up with a question about my research, rather than an assumption. Believe it or not, “beautiful” and “shark” are rarely found in the same sentence unless you’re a shark scientist or a fisherman; unfortunately, the adjectives of choice are often more antagonistic. And when people aren't willing to ask questions about the origin of these words, they can affect public perception of these animals in such a way as to actually cause them harm.

Blue shark ( Prionace glauca ). Photo: Wikipedia

Blue shark (Prionace glauca). Photo: Wikipedia

Though we didn’t know it at the time, our conversation was a timely one. A few days later, BBC News released what would become a very popular article: “The new sharks coming to UK as temperatures rise. The subtitle claimed that “research from the University of Southampton” suggested “new kinds of sharks could migrate to UK waters as the oceans warm.” Dr. Ken Collins, a well-respected Senior Research Fellow at the aforementioned university, had evidently outlined 10 species of shark that could alter their migratory patterns and travel to the waters of the United Kingdom as sea surface temperatures increase due to climate change. Among others, these included great hammerheads, blacktips, oceanic whitetips, and sand tiger sharks, all of which may expand their range by 2050. In many ways the article seemed to be quite informative. It listed basic facts about the species and information on sharks in the UK. Furthermore, the piece ended with a conservation-based statement by Dr. Collins, calling for work to “prevent the premature extinction of these wonderful creatures.” Thus, upon first glance, I was excited to see the attention drawn to the sharks in this part of the world - the waters around the UK and Ireland host ecosystems that can be overlooked in terms of their biodiversity and marine life. 

However, with sharks, all press is certainly not good press. There were a few key issues in the article that undoubtedly fueled the media fire that was to come. Most importantly, at no point did Dr. Collins claim to have conducted a comprehensive study. According to the press release summary by another media platform Carbon Brief, he actually stated: “It’s not research. It’s opinion….On the back of this, I was trying to spread a conservation message.” As far as the content of the article, there were also some details that, while minor, could mislead the reader. For example, after explaining that the great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran) is heavily fished for its large fins, which is true, the article stated that “it’s extremely rare for this hammerhead to bite humans.” Such a small qualifying word (“this”) immediately suggested that there may be other species of hammerhead that do, in fact, bite humans. To the credit of BBC, the article then backtracked to emphasize “that it’s extremely rare for any shark species to attack a person”; however, this was only after stating that blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus) and other requiem sharks “are thought to comprise many of the recorded instances of sharks biting humans.” Furthermore, the piece then explained that oceanic whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus) engage in “feeding frenzies” in which “several predators converge on one food source…and go wild – biting anything that moves.” Remembering the previous conversation with my friend, I couldn’t help but do some word associations. I wondered what readers would remember from this article: the fact that there are sharks that could come to UK waters that have been known to “go wild”, “engage in feeding frenzies” and “bite anything that moves” (a category that has historically included the occasional person), or the one statement that emphasizes that shark attacks are extremely rare?

In spite of these details, however, this was one of the more neutral news pieces on sharks that I had read. The major issues arose immediately after this “new study” was out in the open. It seems I was not the only person to pick up on some of the language in the BBC article. The Daily Telegraph published a follow-up article in its “Science” section with the title: “Deadly great white sharks and oceanic white-tips to arrive in British waters by 2050.” Here Dr. Collins was said to have claimed that rising sea temperatures will “encourage exotic predators which have previously avoided our icy shores”, including “dangerous sharks" such as great whites. Other news outlets, including the Independent, Times, Belfast Telegraph and others, featured similar headlines: “Sharks head to Britain as temperatures rise”, “Exotic sharks could migrate to British waters in coming decades due to climate change”, “Warming UK waters will attract newer shark types”.  


What’s more, suddenly the great white shark (the feared protagonist of Jaws) featured prominently in all major news stories. Yet there had been no mention of them in the BBC article. Great whites, it seemed, were “coming to a beach near you”, according to “recent studies” by “experts.” Or at least, that’s what the media claimed. However, across all articles, Dr. Collins was only quoted on a few topics; namely, the shift in shark movement patterns in response to climate change, and the need for conservation measures. And while he had originally explained that UK waters possess the same temperatures as areas where great whites are often found, he did not necessarily predict their presence or imminent arrival. If anything, he had continued to say that “numbers worldwide are declining so the chances of seeing one around the UK fall by year.” To clarify, great white sharks are not currently endemic to UK waters. Sharks adjust their movement patterns according to many factors that include sea surface temperature, but also prey availability or the presence of mates. Thus just because a species seems physiologically capable of surviving in a certain habitat doesn’t necessarily mean that it chooses to do so. Shark movement patterns are complicated, and we are still working to understand all of the factors that interact to drive them. Based on current scientific literature, however, Dr. Collins's opinion was well-informed. But the system that we rely on to disseminate information proved far from perfect.

Let me be clear: as a science communicator, I believe that media outlets have the potential to be a great source of information. I work with National Geographic and Nat Geo WILD, I have had friends and colleagues on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, and BBC’s Shark series is perhaps my favorite documentary of all time. However, in spite of the growing efforts to provide more accurate information and properly inform public perception of sharks, this is a world that is just now breaking up with Jaws. Words are especially powerful as we attempt to shift our collective mindset, and those who have control of them should be careful. For scientists, this can be challenging. It is necessary to be able to break down results and methods into terms relatable to a non-scientific audience. At the same time, we need to ensure that the true meaning of our research is not lost in translation. It can be all too easy to summarize, to generalize, to claim something is “essentially” true, but the details matter. Furthermore, when we do attempt to reach beyond the scientific bubble, we need reliable sources to help us. Scientists can only do so much, and we are certainly not infallible. Yet we also have to recognize that the priorities of scientists and the media may not always align - "Some shark species may or may not change their habitat preferences" doesn't capture our attention in the same way that "Killer sharks invade UK waters" might. Awareness of these differences, combined with open and clear communication between all platforms, could be used to avoid the spread of misinformation. 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to have several people and the occasional media outlet reach out to ask about my research. What I am finding so far is that people tend to be simply curious about sharks in general. But especially in this age of social media, I have the responsibility to be extremely careful with the information I provide. In fact, when I saw the debate around the BBC article, I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. Jaws would be all over Twitter and Instagram – the mechanical shark from the film would have its own Facebook page. But I've been relieved to find that, at least among the younger generations, the overarching question is not some form of “What is the best way to eradicate the world’s sharks?” 

Instead, it is this: “What’s the best thing we can do to help them?” 

My answer to that is actually pretty simple: learn about them, think critically about what information you are given, ask us questions and hold us accountable, researchers and communicators alike.


For more clarification of Dr. Collins’s statements and a summary of the media coverage to date, check out the Carbon Brief article.