Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Shark Week: Who's predator, who's prey?

As sure as summer will bring on sunburn, eye-aching plaid shorts, and good kayaking, it's also time for “Shark Week,” an annual event on the Discovery Channel. As noted here last year, this is the week when a network can claim that it's providing educational programming while scaring up good ratings, not to mention scaring the living bejesus out of viewers. Yes, it's cable TV gone wild.

Discovery Channel photo: "Hey, who's playing the 'Jaws' music down here?"
Most kayakers – and anyone else who enjoys the ocean – are fascinated by sharks, of course. Even though your chances of being killed by a shark are about the same as being struck by lightning while holding the winning mega-million-dollar lottery ticket, as noted by shark experts. great white sharks kayakers shark attacks sea kayaking shark fishing

But it’s just so darn entertaining to watch “Jaws” in action. And if you’re a kayak blogger, it’s fun to chum the Web and boost your “hit count” just by mentioning sharks, as I’ve shamelessly confessed in another post. (Never simply type the word “ocean,” call it “shark-infested waters.”)    
Discovery Channel: An extra bite of revenue
All of this seems less amusing  when something happens that makes you wonder who’s really the predator and who's really the prey. Take some recent news involving a shark and a kayaking angler in the Santa Barbara area, as breathlessly reported on a local news show. (“Here’s a story with some teeth in it!”) Other TV stations across California picked up the story and made it sound as though a fearsome shark attacked the paddler.

Now wait a minute. These guys were fishing for sharks. And when the eight-foot thresher shark flipped the kayaker, the video clearly showed that the guy deliberately held onto its tail. Apparently because he was more afraid of losing his rig than having a leg ripped.  In the end, the guy subdued the shark by holding it upside down and pulling it backwards onto his kayak. Pulling a fish backward, with reverse water flow through its gills, is like drowning to a human. But hey, these were “catch and release” fishermen, so why am I taking up for the shark?

Carrie Wilson, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game, watched the TV video footage and commented at NorCal Yak’s request. First, she said, “These aren’t man-eating sharks, they’re fish-eating sharks,” and in fact, threshers are also popular food for human diners.
DFG's Carrie Wilson

“In my opinion, this shouldn’t have been portrayed as a fight,” she said.

As for catch-and-release, Wilson said, “From the rough way this fish was treated, its back could have been broken...While sharks are more hardy than many other fish, throwing them back into the depths doesn’t mean they will survive…A good catch-and-release angler will never take the fish out of the water – he’ll remove the hook or cut the line to let the fish go,” she added.  

At the same time, Wilson emphasized that no laws were apparently broken. There’s no season on thresher sharks, no size limit. The main restriction is that only two threshers can be in possession at one time, even if one of them is at home in the freezer. (For more info on shark fishing and Q&A's on various wildlife-related topics, DFG maintains an excellent Web site.)

Heck of a time to unpack your suitcase (Discovery Channel photo)
Now let’s go back to “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. While the TV special has its usual share of hyperventilating hype (“Great White Slam Dance!”), I give ‘em a bit of credit for showing another side of the story – and a very gruesome one, involving a practice called shark finning. (This video is not for the squeamish.)

All of which brings us back to the main shark question: Who’s the predator, and who’s the prey?