You could forgive Trump for not knowing any of this if his only exposure to the animals is through Shark Week. The Discovery Channel’s long-running annual event attracts millions of viewers, but it has a track record of promulgating unhelpful myths about these animals. In 2013, they aired a documentary asking if Megalodon—the giant prehistoric shark that made great whites look not-that-great—is still alive. It is not.
Their documentaries about sharks that actually still exist aren’t much better. Suzannah Evans, from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that around two-thirds of Shark Week documentaries also portray sharks as violent, aggressive animals, accompanied by shots of bloody water, struggling swimmers, and reenacted deaths. And unsurprisingly, people who watch these clips become scared of sharks, and overstate their own risk of being bitten.
Sharks very rarely attack humans—and when they do, it’s usually a case of mistaken identity. As the blog Southern Fried Science notes, “more people are bitten by other people on the New York City subway each year than are bitten by sharks in the whole world.” And also, “more (fictional) people have been killed onscreen by Jack Bauer during episodes of 24 than have been killed by every fatal shark bite worldwide ... since the year 1580.”
This is an old fear, one that was thoroughly stoked by Jaws—the novel by Peter Benchley, which was adapted by Steven Spielberg. Benchley regretted the negative impact of his novel, and dedicated his later life to ocean conservation. “No, the shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain,” he wrote. “It would have to be written as the victim, for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”
Indeed, the second part of Trump’s old tweet—that sharks will outlast us—is not necessarily true. His administration has moved to add several shark species to the endangered list, but many of its other policies spell trouble for sharks, and for the oceans more broadly. The administration has promised to shrink marine national monuments and other sanctuaries against overfishing. It announced earlier this month that it would open up 90 percent of U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas drilling. It withdrew a proposed rule that would have protected endangered species, including several sharks, from being caught and killed in mile-long nets meant to entrap swordfish in California.
All of this is bad news for sharks, which are among the most threatened group of backboned animals around. A large team of scientists led by Nick Dulvy has estimated that a quarter of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction. Several haven’t been seen in decades. The common skate is critically endangered. Overfishing is to blame. Every year, between 26 and 73 million sharks and rays are caught deliberately, stripped of their fins, and left to die, to sate the East Asian market for shark-fin soup. That’s especially tragic since the shark meat adds no flavor to the soup—only texture.