Sickening

24 07 2007

It’s that time of year again; when groups of “macho” men go out and try and prove something by catching and killing sharks off Martha’s Vineyard, a community on the southern part of Cape Cop, Massachusetts. You may have even seen some of the tournament in years past, broadcast as the “Monster Shark Tournament” on ESPN, and make no mistake, this is not a catch-and-release tournament or one that seems to have conservation in mind. Sharks are caught and brought in to be measured in front of crowds at the docks, points being awarded for the size and rarity of the bloodied animals. The big prize that made the news today? A 16 and 1/2 foot long, 536 pound thresher shark (I’m assuming it was a Common Thresher, Alopias vulpinus, from the photo, as there are three species of threshers) caught by Allen Mullaney. While thresher sharks are considered vulnerable by the IUCN and many conservationists and those concerned with animal rights have protested the shark tournament, the “sportsmen” (and I use the term despite their conduct) are not to be dissauded. Says Mullaney;

‘‘You have to love the sport of fishing to understand,’’ he said. ‘‘It was just me against him.’’

The false man-eater aspect of the tournament was played up by the coverage on ESPN when I saw it the summer before last, just as it is used to sell Shark Week on the Discovery Channel (which gets more atrocious every year). There is no care for conservation from those who fish for these sharks; it’s all about personal glory and the debunked myth of sharks as ruthless killers and sea monsters. I’ve fished for shark myself, catching a 3-foot dusky shark off Ocean City, Maryland which was measured, tagged, and released. Even this method can be quite stressful to the animal, but it is at least trying to benefit science while allowing fishermen to continue their definition of “sport.” The Oaks Bluff competition, however, offers no such consolation. Indeed, despite protests voiced about the lack of ethics involved and the behavior of some of the participants, the town went along with the tournament anyway.

I would hope that this would be the last year the tournament took place, but sharks still suffer from a PR problem despite the policy changes that have been made, and terrible TV programming doesn’t help. In 2000 I assisted the Discovery Channel with getting information for Shark Week: Uncaged (particularly the “Fin Time” segments that ran during commercial breaks), but I can hardly remember a year when the focus was on conservation and science rather than gory spectacles promising “Death Tape Footage.” Two years ago the Discovery Channel had a tie-in with the horror film Open Water, but yet they refuse to endorse the acclaimed conservation-oriented shark documentary Sharkwater. I guess they’d prefer to tell tales of death like Grizzly Man because animal violence sells. Even on its sister channel, Animal Planet, animal-on-human violence is inescapable. I forget the idiot’s name, but there a series that stemmed from a special featuring an ex-circus trainer trying to get close to lions on foot. He now has his own series which starts with a self-serving introduction about how he overcame his fear of lions after an abused animal decided not to take it anymore and took it out on the whip-wielding trainer. The show features lots of shaky-camera/fake-blood reenactments with the host commiserating with fellow attack victims afterwards, but the whole thing just makes me sick.

If that is the best “science” television can offer I’m glad I don’t get cable.


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8 responses

24 07 2007
RedMolly

Absolutely disgusting.

If these knuckleheads want the real “thrill of the hunt,” how about tossing them into a tank with an uninjured thresher shark and letting them go mano-a-mano with it for a while? Sounds much more sporting that way… it’s like the running of the bulls, right?

24 07 2007
laelaps

Agreed. In a way I have much more respect for bow-hunters being what they do requires a fair amount of skill and if you’re going to go after a bear, you’d better damn well do it right the first time or you’re not going hope. I’m constantly sickened by canned hunts and tournaments where the odds are stacked in our favor, almost like we’re getting back at nature for when there were packs of giant hyenas or 10 different kinds of big cats (some with teeth as long as our forearms). It’s terrible that we have to allow such things to go on, especially in Africa where the money that hunters bring in is said to be funneled back in to conservation efforts. Much like ecotourism, this is a devil’s bargain at best, and I’m not hopeful about its long-term effects. The state of current global ecology is like a scab that we just can’t keep from picking even though we know we’d better not (and have been told at least as much).

24 07 2007
Neil

Meanwhile, yet another study documents the importance of apex predators in marine ecosystems. I certainly wouldn’t call Grizzly Man Herzog’s finest work, but for Herzog at least, the attraction isn’t really the carnage, but the inner-character of Tim Treadwell himself. But, of course, there is a reason everyone went to go see that one and not, say The White Diamond (A tremendously hokey and beautiful film).

24 07 2007
laelaps

Neil; I actually had no problems with Herzog’s film in and of itself. Actually, I don’t think I ever saw anything quite so chilling (like when the doctor is describing the tape that recorded the bear attack), but rather Discovery picking up Grizzly Man but not picking up good documentaries with a strong conservation message. I haven’t seen The White Diamond so I’ll definitely have to add that the Netflix queue.

25 07 2007
Julia

Ugh. I just don’t watch any of those Discovery channels anymore – it’s almost entirely bloodthirsty voyeurism dressed up as natural history!

With one exception – Nick Baker’s Weird Creatures is absolutely fascinating. And it’s a lot less gung ho than most, with a good conservation message.

As human beings we do have some sickening “hobbies”. Fox-hunting is Britain’s particular shame – running the fox down until it’s too exhausted to carry on and allowing it to be ripped to shreds by hounds is more brutal and actually less effective than just shooting the animal. And anyone who takes part in the bull-running in Spain seriously deserves to be gored.

25 07 2007
laelaps

I’ve actually never seen Nick Baker’s show; I’ll definitely have to check that out. Humans do have some rather despicable habits, but at least in the UK I’ve heard that there’s been a bit of a change. I had once read an account of a “human hunt” where runners were pursued by bloodhounds and riders and horseback, the worst that happens in the end is being slobbered on by the pack of dogs. While some hunters respect wildlife and do care about conservation, there are all too many ways that animals are exploited (i.e. aquariums like Sea World where cetaceans are kept, with no hope of them returning to the ocean).

25 07 2007
Julia

Well, there is a law banning hunting with dogs, but there are so many loopholes that it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. I don’t think I’d fancy my chances as a human against a pack of fox-hounds – there’s a lot of imprinted behaviour in there…

Nick Baker’s great – the opening credits have him standing awestruck in the Natural History Museum, and his voiceover talks about how it was his favourite place as a child. Funny how we all start off in a museum isn’t it? And he goes behind the scenes at the Darwin Centre, which houses the wet collection and the zoology department (the extension they’re building will, I believe, get the entomology and botany departments). And he talks to people that I used to chat to over coffee when I did one of my placements in Mark Wilkinson’s lab.

25 07 2007
laelaps

“Funny how we all start off in a museum isn’t it?” Definitely true; I wonder if we did a poll of paleontologists/evolutionary scientists how many of them would point to the Natural History Museum or the AMNH and say that’s where they go their start and interest in paleo or nature in general. Maybe dinosaurs have a lot to do with it because they’re larger than life when we’re young, both dangerous (monsters are real) and safe (but they’re long gone), and they make it easy for parents to encourage their kids in doing something scientific. Even if I’m wrong, plenty of scientists owe their starts to the old AMNH T. rex and “Brontosaurus” mounts (including me), and I certainly hope that many of the institutions currently having financial trouble are able to continue in their existence.

Thanks for the tip about the SVP as well. I’m sure I could get someone from the geology department to sign it (whenever I ask someone in my own dept of Ecology & Evolution, they usually just look at me funny. Then again, many of them are foresters/wetland ecologists). Whether I actually get there or not will be anyone’s guess, probably not if I can’t go for free, but I still should have a subscription to the journal.

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