Shark Week and the Role of Fear

By : Humane Society International Australia August 12, 2020 Category : Marine Conservation

By Lawrence Chlebeck 

It’s Shark Week!  And though mainly an American phenomenon, Shark Week reaches us in Australia through streaming services and social media. While full of science, insight, fact, and interesting information, it’s hard to deny the real driver and draw of Shark Week: fear.

With program titles like Monster Under the BridgeGreat White Kill Zone, and I Was Prey, the sensationalism and fear-mongering isn’t exactly subtle.

For the early human, fear was good. Fear made us cautious of the unknown, fear forced us to prepare for any outcome, and protected us from potential harm. It does the same today.  A fear response was evolutionary advantageous to our ancestors, helped them survive, and has thus been passed down to us. 

But what role does fear play in our society today? Bereft of any real risk to life and limb in our typical day to day, fear is more likely now to be enjoyed at a trip to the cinemas, at the top of a rollercoaster, or any number of thrill-seeking ventures. Fear can be fun, but in wild, uncontrolled environments it is evolutionarily hard-wired into us, and impedes us from thinking rationally. In this way, fear can be dangerous. When fear clashes with science and impedes with our logic, it inhibits our progress as a society.

Fear is what makes Shark Week so popular, but it is also what keeps shark culling programs in operation. 

Our fear of sharks blinds us to the logic. While each event is undeniably traumatic, the real risk of shark bite is incredibly rare. We’ve all heard the stats: bees, birds, cows, dogs, buffalo, bison, hippos, and horses each kill and injure more people than sharks every year. When this is the case, when shark/human interactions are so rare, why do we expect anything a government can do will actually protect us? The rare and completely random nature of these interactions make culling utterly pointless; in addition to being wasteful, cruel and an attack on our ocean ecosystems.

Humane Society International (HSI) recently won a court case against the Queensland Government, to end deliberate culling in their Shark Control Program. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) issued a 10-year permit to the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF) that allows them to operate lethal drumlines within the GBR. HSI argued that issuing such a permit was in direct violation of their mandate to “conserve the ecological viability of the Great Barrier Reef.”

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) heard evidence and expert testimonies that culling sharks does not reduce to risk of shark bite, and that Queensland’s Shark Control Program contributed significantly to the declines in tiger shark populations, thereby negatively influencing the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The Tribunal found the evidence to these points to be “overwhelming,” and decided in favour of HSI, ending the lethal component of the Shark Control Program. This means lethal drumlines must transition to non-lethal SMART drumlines and sharks caught on drumlines must no longer be shot but be tagged, relocated and released alive where possible. Instead of accepting the decision as an opportunity to proceed in a modern non-lethal direction, implementing technologies more effective at protecting ocean users, the Queensland Government decided to dig their heels in, and appealed the decision in the Federal Court on legal technicalities. 

The Appeal failed and QLD must now abide by the court ruling. Though months have passed, recent catch statistics indicate that of the 76 sharks caught on drumlines in the GBR this year, 74 have been killed. Clearly, QLD Fisheries has a way to go to be compliant with the court orders and operate the GBR’s Shark Control Program non-lethally. HSI will stay on the case…

Our fear of sharks has led us down dangerous illogical and unscientific pathways, and it’s hurting our oceans. So let’s celebrate this Shark Week with fascination, fact and curiosity, not the fear of man-eaters lurking in the depths. With the support of the Shark Conservation Fund, HSI has partnered with the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) to create Shark Champions, a campaign to dispel fear and promote conservation of sharks and rays here in Australia and abroad. 

HSI has successfully nominated shark species such as great white, grey nurse, and hammerhead sharks for federal and state protections, and has also nominated species for protection under international conservation instruments such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS). Over the last two years, HSI and AMCS have nominated some lesser-known species of sharks and rays that are nevertheless under great risk. These species include:

Whitefin swellshark                 

Cephaloscyllium albipinnum                   

Longnose skate

Dentiraja confusus

Grey skate

Dipturus canutus

Narrow sawfish

Anoxypristis cuspidata

Colclough’s shark

Brachaelurus colcloughi

Sydney skate

Dentiraja australis

Green-eye spurdog

Squalus chloroculus

Eastern angelshark

Squatina albinpunctata

We at HSI and Shark Champions stand for all sharks and understand them to be sources of fascination, not fear.  Celebrate sharks for the vital roles they play in our oceans, not the sensationalist and misrepresentative roles they play in Hollywood and across mainstream media.  

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Header image: iStock-Grisha Shoolepoff


A marine ecologist specialising in conservation, research and outreach, Lawrence has spent years working with wildlife, the ocean and the public to engender sustainable relationships between them. He has worked as a field biologist, environmental consultant, naturalist and project coordinator with a BA from the University of San Diego, and an MSc from James Cook University. Lawrence’s work at HSI is currently focused on shark welfare and protection, specifically in regards to culling and control programs, overexploitation, and international protection.

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About HSI Australia

HSI concentrates on the preservation of endangered animals and ecosystems and works to ensure quality of life for all animals, both domestic and wild. HSI is the largest animal protection not-for-profit organisation in the world and has been established in Australia since 1994