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Published: Friday, 8/17/2012

COMMENTARY

At the shark of the matter

BY KIRK BAIRD
CULTURE SHOCK

It's been a big week for shark enthusiasts.

Jaws finally made it to Blu-ray and "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel is winding down.

Jaws, of course, became the first modern-day summer blockbuster when it scared swimmers silly in 1975. And "Shark Week," which is celebrating its 25th year, continues to draw huge audiences as the premier theme week on cable television.

The enduring popularity of both are testaments to our fascination with these "killers of the deep," a fixation born more of deathly fear more than intellectual curiosity.

And like most people, I can't help but tune in.

Sharks were my second great obsession, following dinosaurs, but pre-Star Wars. Then came movies and television and video games and computers. Girls were in there somewhere ... I think.

I love sharks. And maybe that's why I feel guilty about loving "Shark Week."

Several years ago I interviewed Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, who was promoting the IMAX documentary Sharks 3D. I asked him about the appeal of Jaws, "Shark Week," and other "sharks as eating machines" propaganda.

"It's very unfair to the shark," he said. "First of all, of the more than 400 species of sharks, it's only four or five of those animals that you have to be careful about in certain circumstances. The others are merely harmless.

"How many people die from bee stings? We never talk about it. Never."

He has a point. According to the World Health Organization, between 1979-1990 there were 718 venomous deaths -- mostly from bees and wasps -- in the United States. That's nearly 60 deaths annually in that period.

Meanwhile, the International Shark Attack File, an organization that tracks shark attacks worldwide, reported only a dozen fatalities because of unprovoked shark attacks in 2011. The yearly average between 2001 through 2010 was 4.3. The 12 deaths, incidentally, was the highest yearly total since 1993, which also was 12.

Now compare those numbers to the millions of sharks killed each year mostly for their fins, the chief ingredient in shark fin soup, and you have to wonder who's the mindless eating machine now.

To be fair, "Shark Week" isn't solely about scaring viewers; the Discovery Channel airs educational programs, and it fosters a larger message to conserve these beautiful and necessary scavengers as part of the health and stability of the oceanic ecosystem. It also would be disingenuous to deny that the cable network wants to attract record amounts of viewers, and a programming schedule loaded with informative documentaries only isn't going to lure couch potatoes.

Deadly Waters, Sharkbite Beach, How Not to Become Shark Bait, Ocean of Fear, Killer Sharks, Sharkbite Summer, and Top Five Eaten Alive -- please point out the educational values in these hourlong programs that aired earlier this week?

Jaws author and co-screenwriter Peter Benchley came to regret his novel about a bloodthirsty 25-foot Great White Shark terrorizing a New England resort town, even though it was "entirely fiction," as he told the London Daily Express shortly before his death at 65 in February, 2006.

"Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today," said Benchley, who became a shark conservationist. "Sharks don't target human beings, and they certainly don't hold grudges."

After watching Sharkbite Summer and Top Five Eaten Alive, I'm not sure I would blame them if they did.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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