Attack Of The Shark Experts

If last summer was “The Summer of the Shark,” it also became the summer of the shark expert, as a parade of advocates and apologists took to the airwaves to reassure the rattled public that it need not worry about these vilified and misunderstood creatures, who have more to fear from man than man does from them. They became a regular feature of shark attack media coverage as the summer progressed, bravely sticking to their statistical spin — “People have a better chance of getting (fill in the blank) than they do of getting attacked by a shark” — even as the body count and beachside horror stories mounted. But with another beach season fast approaching, they're schooling and circling and coming at us again — the shark apologists, that is — launching a pre-emptive strike to ensure that when attacks occur, as they inevitably will, another “media feeding frenzy” on the subject doesn't get started. Last year's attack of the shark experts was a freewheeling, ad hoc affair. This year's defense will be more vociferous, better organized, and (for reasons explained forthwith) funded in part by the federal government. The shark-spin begins tomorrow with a media briefing on attacks at Washington's National Press Club, organized and sponsored by the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and will reach a crescendo in June, with a two-day conference (“From Fear to Fascination”) in Tampa, Fla., also being bankrolled by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. Both events will showcase some of the most vocal shark attack apologists, including George Burgess, keeper of the International Shark Attack File and leading proponent of the man-is-the-problem, nothing-to-worry-about crowd. Why is the federal agency responsible for managing commercial fisheries organizing media events for shark advocates and interjecting itself into the debate over whether attacks are, or are not, a growing threat? Like a shark, the agency is being driven by the instinct of self-preservation. Last summer, in an article published in National Review Online, I raised questions about whether there might be a connection between a rising number of attacks in the 1990s and federal efforts during the decade to increase the population of large coastal sharks in the Atlantic by drastically reducing the catch of commercial shark fisherman. I supported this linkage by showing that attack numbers began to jump upward as the federal government ordered deeper and deeper cuts in the catch quotas of commercial shark boats. I also reported that federal “shark stock rebuilding” efforts and fisheries regulations were based on the scientifically dubious premise, pushed by antifishing advocacy groups, that sharks overall were in precipitous decline. My contention that the government's shark science was slipshod has since been supported by an independent review of the latest federal shark stock assessment. It found that the government's baseline data and modeling techniques were flawed. In that article and others, I also explored the possibility that State of Florida fisheries regulations — including a 1992 ban on commercial shark fishing in state waters (3 miles into the Atlantic, 9 miles into the Gulf of Mexico) — may inadvertently have created a shark sanctuary in waters close to shore. That's a favorite cruising ground for the dangerous bull shark, implicated in last summer's most savage attacks, and a zone where human-shark encounters are most likely to occur. In 1995, the state also instituted a gill-net ban that has led to a huge increase in the quantity of baitfish near-shore. Protected sharks chasing exploding baitfish populations — neither of which are being culled out by commercial and recreational fisherman, as they were in the past — could be responsible for the considerable increase in Florida attacks during the 1990s. These aren't the only possible explanations for why shark attacks have been on the rise. But they have an advantage over most others by at least being plausible. Yet these issues are roundly ignored by the government and its pet “scientists” because they pose a threat to shark protection efforts, the agencies administering them, and the environmental advocacy groups lobbying for them (several of which are currently suing to force even deeper cuts in commercial shark-catching quotas). All the “experts” participating in NOAA's dog-and-pony shows have been cheerleaders for the regulations, work for the regulatory agencies involved, or, as in the case of George Burgess, directly benefit from the programs through government grants or funding. They are far from the objective or disinterested “scientists” the government and media present them as. Clearly, these federally funded events not only are designed to calm public apprehensions about shark attacks, but to decouple the issue of shark attacks from the issue of government shark management. The last thing everyone involved with them wants is the public asking questions about whether the agencies and “experts” involved in these policies have been regulating recklessly, with little concern or appreciation for the public safety implications of what they are doing.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />