Television correspondents rushed to the scenes of the attacks, where they chronicled the most minute developments, announcing even the non-news that emergency responders doing routine sweeps of the ocean had failed to find any signs of sharks.
Pundits weighed in. As some emphasized that sharks pose a minimal threat to humans, Slate’s Will Saletan questioned their analogies.
“Let’s get a few things straight. Gentle creatures don’t devour human limbs. The bogeyman doesn’t bleed children to death,” Saletan wrote on Sept. 7, 2001.
Less than a week later, we forgot all about sharks. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 took the lives of 2,753 people, a tragedy that dwarfed the impact of shark accidents not just that year, but in the half-century that preceded it. There were 76 unprovoked shark attacks globally in 2001, down from 85 the year before. Fatalities, meanwhile, dropped from 12 to five between 2000 and 2001.
Sharks still terrify people. Just consider the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” which wrapped up Friday: It is cable’s longest-running programming event and attracted 30.8 million viewers last year. And sharks remain the ocean’s top predators, with extraordinary senses that allow them to target weaker species. On occasion, they mistake humans for the animals they want to eat, with disastrous consequences.
But the era of hysteria could, mercifully, have finally sputtered out. In fact, we’ve entered a new kind of Year of the Shark.
The science is hard to ignore: Roughly a third of all shark species face some threat of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The growing demand for shark’s fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, kills between 26 and 73 million sharks a year. Vessels fishing for tuna, swordfish and other species accidentally catch millions more annually. Recreational anglers help deplete shark populations as well, taking 200,000 annually off U.S. coasts, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The Summer of the Shark in ’01 didn’t send scientists scurrying to figure out why these animals strike people. But the past decade has witnessed a number of research breakthroughs about how sharks travel, mate and feed — research in the service of protecting them more than protecting us.