Shark Spin Soup: The Return Of The Shark Apologists

The federally funded press conference on shark attacks held on May 21 indicates that Americans have good reason to be afraid as another summer beach season gets into full swing. Not only should they be on guard against shark encounters — which, although statistically rare, have in fact been on the rise in recent years — but they may have even more to fear from another menace: federal and state regulators who seem determined to pursue shark-protection programs, even if beachgoers become shark bait in the process. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

At that National Press Club “briefing” (cost to taxpayers: $23,000), a select group of shark experts and federal fisheries officials not only dismissed last year's “Summer of the Shark” as nothing out of the ordinary, and the result of a “media feeding frenzy” — but tried to paper over the possibility that government regulations had anything to do with it ( a linkage first made on NRO last August). It's a message sure to be repeated at the two-day conference in Tampa next week, sponsored in part by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Participants dishonestly argued that there was nothing alarming about last summer (2001) because, statistically speaking, it was little different from the one preceding it (2000). That the previous year had been a record year for attacks — with totals much higher than anything experienced before the federal government and state of Florida launched shark-protection programs in the early 1990s — wasn't mentioned by the government officials or shark experts involved. And that was only one of the many selective truths and self-serving statistics provided at the Press Club that day, then distributed on the wire services to be reported as fact by an impressionable media. Even a recent NRO review by Chris McEvoy of Jaws author Peter Benchley's latest paean to the shark, Shark Trouble, flirted with taking the bait. McEvoy repeated the spin that the “Summer of the Shark” was a media-generated myth unlikely to be repeated.

Attack Summer, By The Numbers

In truth, last year was a remarkable one in the annals of U.S. shark attacks, and fully deserved its moniker. The 55 U.S. attacks in 2001 broke the record set only a year earlier, of 54. The number of Florida attacks (37) was only one short of the previous record, also set in 2000. Back-to-back record years for any occurrence as unpredictable as shark attacks are worth paying attention to. And not only the numbers, but the severity of the attacks, also were extraordinary. Last year's three known U.S. fatalities amounted to more than had been recorded in the entire 1990s combined. One noted shark expert, Jack Musick, called the back-to-back deaths off the beaches of Virginia and North Carolina “unprecedented.” And the schooling of sharks off Florida's west coast, which closed some beaches, had other experts groping for explanations.

Interestingly, another noted authority on sharks, Dr. Bob Hueter of Florida's Mote Marine Laboratory, told the St. Petersburg Times last September, after many of the worst attacks had occurred, that he had experienced an ominous premonition about last summer. “I had an uncomfortable feeling that something was going to happen,” he said, based on reports he'd been getting for two years of increased bull-shark activity off Florida beaches. Why Hueter didn't share those concerns with state officials — who might have done more to alert swimmers to a possibly dangerous situation — is an interesting question. But Hueter's focus of concern seems to be sharks rather than humans. And in that sense, he's little different than other shark apologists and advocates.

Last year's 55 U.S. attacks may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things. But consider the following. In the early 1990s, about the time the federal government and state of Florida initiated shark-protection initiatives, the U.S. annually averaged about half as many attacks as it would in the latter half of the decade. In 1992, the year in which Florida banned commercial shark fishing in state waters (extending 3 miles into the Atlantic and 9 miles into the Gulf of Mexico), there were 12 attacks in the state (as compared with 37 last year, and 38 the year before). In 1994, when the federal government began a “shark stock rebuilding program” in the Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico, there were just 10 attacks in Florida (again, compared with 37 and 38 in the last two years). The state averaged about 10 shark attacks annually in the first four years of the 1990s, when federal and state shark protections were being instituted. Since then, annual attack averages have more than doubled and, for the last two years, have nearly quadrupled — approaching 40 attacks per year.

The most dramatic increase in U.S. shark attacks, and all three of last year's fatalities, occurred along the Atlantic coast or in the Gulf of Mexico, where federal and state shark protections are in effect. Attacks in California and Hawaii, where no such protections exist, remained steady or declined through the 1990s — contradicting arguments that increases are merely a function of growing human populations and use of the beaches.

At the time these initiatives were launched, the government's main concern was to save supposedly endangered sharks and respond to pressure from wildlife advocacy groups. What might occur along the beaches when those shark populations rebounded — assuming they had been seriously depleted in the first place — seems never to have crossed anybody's mind.

Regulators seemed similarly oblivious to the possible consequences when the state of Florida in 1992 banned commercial shark fishing and sharply curtailed recreational shark fishing, establishing de facto shark sanctuaries in the waters closest to shore — where human-shark encounters are likeliest to occur. In 1995, the state also instituted a gill-net ban that has greatly increased the quantity of baitfish in near-shore waters. It's my concern that protected sharks chasing exploding baitfish populations — neither of which are being culled out by commercial and recreational fishermen, as they were in the past — may be contributing to the considerable increase in attacks in Florida waters during the 1990s.

But even those shark-attack statistics err on the low side, and should be taken with a grain of salt. The figures widely circulated in the media (which I also use, in lieu of anything better) only count “unprovoked attacks,” as determined by self-styled attack expert George Burgess, keeper of something called the International Shark Attack File. Burgess's attack totals include only attacks he deems to be unprovoked, or those in which evidence of a shark's involvement is beyond doubt. The file's figures for 2000, for instance, did not count eleven reported attacks that did not rate as “unprovoked” in Burgess' judgment. Four of the uncounted attacks were initiated by a shark against a boat, rather than against a human being (though some might quibble with the distinction). Four were judged to have been “provoked” attacks (though the criteria used for that judgment call are hidden away in Burgess's files — access to which is strictly controlled). And three were dismissed as being of doubtful authenticity.

The “Experts”

In all, 47 cases of attack referred to Burgess for investigation since 1997 have been dismissed as being either provoked attacks or inconclusive in nature. I'm aware of one case of a Florida Keys tropical-fish collector who disappeared several years ago during a night dive, and who was presumed to have been a shark victim when searchers found his shredded equipment the next day. But because rumors were circulated that the diver might have faked his own death, and because the body was never recovered, this individual is not included in Burgess's statistics. As he has carved out a nice spotlight for himself as leader of the “nothing-to-worry-about” school of thought on shark attacks, Burgess's data and motives should be scrutinized more carefully than they have been by the media.

Burgess is one of a number of “shark experts” portrayed by the media as objective “scientists,” but who in fact have a professional or financial stake in shark regulations and the shark-advocacy racket. He is a longtime advocate of shark-protection regulations and operates a commercial shark-fishing boat observer program, funded by the federal government, that would not exist were it not for federal shark-stock-rebuilding efforts. Those regulations in turn would not exist were it not for the exaggerated sense of crisis about sharks perpetuated by both Burgess and the other scientists with their wagons hitched to the federal gravy train.

It's these scientists — along with government regulators and anti-fishing advocacy groups — who are the star presenters at the government-sponsored media events in Washington and Tampa. Those questioning the pro-regulatory agenda have not been invited to address the journalists in attendance. I asked to be included in the Tampa event, since one evident purpose of the program is to refute my writings on the subject. But I was denied an opportunity to express my views — as were commercial shark fishers, who have seen their industry decimated by scientifically questionable shark-fisheries regulations, and Florida shark-dive operators, who became last year's scapegoats when Sunshine State politicians decided (again, without any hard scientific evidence) that they might somehow be responsible for all the attacks.

The shark apologists' current strategy seems aimed at minimizing public anxieties about attacks, gradually conditioning Americans to accept beachside casualties as the price we must pay for shark conservation efforts, and decoupling the issue of shark attacks from that of shark management efforts. How else to explain why the National Marine Fisheries Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have been interjecting themselves into the debate about whether attacks are, or are not, on the rise? Like sharks, the agencies involved are motivated by an instinct for self-preservation.

Last summer, government officials began to realize that public anxieties about shark attacks posed a direct threat to three distinct but related interest groups: government agencies engaged in shark-protection efforts; the rent-a-scientists that support (and are supported by) that regulatory regime; and the “Save the Ocean” groups and anti-fishing foundations — Packard and Pew among them — that have egged the whole process on by creating an exaggerated sense of crisis concerning shark populations. In response to that threat, those interest groups have launched a public-relations offensive meant to calm nerves and divert attention away from their reckless regulating.

Shark enthusiasts also recognize the “Summer of the Shark” as a potential setback for the decade-old effort to rehabilitate the shark's ominous image. Benchley now says he could never again demonize sharks as he did in Jaws, the book that made him rich and famous. But if he did sit down to update his thriller using events of the past year — when real sharks, rather than imagined ones, provided the plot points — it would be a radically different story indeed.

Another Shark Summer?

In “Jaws 2002,” an animal or animals would still be stalking the coastal zones. But today, the scientist hero, Hooper, rather than showing up to warn Amity islanders of the true dimensions of the threat they faced, then battling the beast to the death alongside a small-town sheriff and salty sea captain, would instead be standing in the surf zone, ringing the dinner bell and beckoning beachgoers seaward. “The water's great and there's nothing to fear,” our contemporary version of Hooper would say, adopting the head-in-the-sand mindset of the original story's profit-hungry town fathers. The town sheriff, reassured by the scientist, would be lounging in a hammock somewhere, snoring. And Quint, the salty old shark stalker, would be cut from the updated storyline altogether — in keeping with the environmentally correct perception that mankind is more of a menace to sharks than vice versa.

The obsessed scientist, blind to the larger implications of what he or she is doing, is certainly not a novel concept; it's been a popular theme since at least as far back as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Government grant money, personal hubris, intoxicating doses of regulatory power, the media spotlight, and bureaucratic butt-covering are all largely responsible for this year's sequel to the “Summer of the Shark”: “The Return of the Shark Apologists.”

Of course, sharks aren't the only potentially dangerous animals enjoying the protection of government regulators and advocate/scientists. People living in the Rocky Mountain West — where wild animal encounters aren't the rarity they are elsewhere in the country — are similarly wary about federal grizzly bear and wolf reintroduction programs, and are justifiably asking whether the government protection of those animals isn't increasing the risk to humans.

If government is going to engage in predator-protection initiatives – whether on behalf of mountain lions, grizzly bears, wolves, or sharks — it has a responsibility to inform Americans about the public-safety implications of its actions, and take reasonable steps to minimize the tragedies that may result. But putting it so squarely to the people could raise controversy and erode support, so the government chooses, in the case of sharks, to deny that we have a problem or that its regulatory schemes might be contributing to it.

Though there may have been some instances of sensationalized media coverage last summer, unless they were dumping buckets of chum off U.S. beaches, the press can hardly be blamed for creating the “Summer of the Shark.” And far from being an anomaly, last summer will likely become the norm if federal and state shark-protection efforts aren't reassessed with an eye to their public-safety implications. We should hope that this summer doesn't come as an encore to the last. But the logic of demographics — human as well as shark — and the illogic of government regulatory actions suggest that the “Summer of the Shark” was probably only a preview of coming attractions.