07/25/2011 04:32 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2011

The Hidden Lives of Sharks

The human body naturally tenses at the sight of two tonnes of sleek muscle surrounding ten rows of serrated teeth -- signalling a rush of adrenaline. The sight of a tell-tale dorsal fin slicing through the water, the torpedoed outline disappearing into the deep, invokes a mixture of exhilaration and unbridled fear.

Sharks innately incite emotion, a relic of both evolutionary coding and centuries of storytelling. Their very image conjures a range of emotions from fear to fascination, a response largely dictated by culture and experience. Over the centuries, sharks have developed an international cult-like following, prized by scientists, fisherman and epicureans alike as much for their fins as their ecological importance.

From the notorious great white shark to the charismatic whale shark and the 500 other species, sharks have captivated generations like no other animal on earth. The popularity of sharks in film, television and print media reflect the public's interest, while their demonic reputation reflects a long history of biased, sensationalistic reporting. The movie Jaws launched a pandemic of shark attack movies, feeding our fascination while fueling a grossly exaggerated paranoia for generations to come. Forty years later, sharks are still greatly misunderstood, a product of significant gaps in research and misrepresentative media coverage. The public's misconception often translates to fear and apathy, a fatal combination that has dulled public support and stalled political progress on shark conservation.

Despite their villainous image, 400 million years of evolution has solidified their reputation as one of nature's most efficient species. Their evolutionary success has caught the eye of many inventors, inspiring innovation from medical breakthroughs to engineering feats. Shark-inspired products boast they can inhibit bacterial growth, boost the efficiency of hydro-turbines, and maximize the flow of water to reduce drag. Research scientists are just beginning to better understand the important role sharks play as predators, helping to keep our oceans in balance. Beyond safeguarding sharks for their intrinsic, or ecological value, researchers are beginning to look at the potential economic incentive for shark protection. In spite of, or perhaps because of, our fear, shark eco-tourism has become a widely profitable industry around the world. A recent study suggests tourism generates upwards of $70 million per year, concluding a single shark is worth $73 per day alive, versus the $50 price tag for a set of shark fins. Moral of the story: sharks are worth more alive than dead.

Unfortunately, many engineering or scientific discoveries are confined to niche or academic circles, never reaching the public sphere. The scientific community's long held aversion to advocacy and the media's tendency to feature stories for their shock value or politics have left the public with a biased, one-sided perception of sharks. Both journalists and the scientific community have a responsibility to promote and provide a more holistic, realistic perspective to counter the prevailing man-eater myth mentality. As (perceived) voices of authority in society, scientists and journalists help shape public opinion, which ultimately dictates public and political will.

In the absence of any single, authoritative voice calling for shark conservation, environmental groups have begun to enlist celebrities to fill the void. A host of young Hollywooders are lending their name (and popularity) to awareness campaigns. Leonardo DiCaprio, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Keidis and others recently teamed up with WildAid to urge California State Senators to support shark finning legislation. NBA star Yao Ming joined the crusade against shark fin soup in China to discourage people from eating shark fin soup. January Jones campaigned for Oceana in their fight to protect sharks. Similar campaigns around the world are helping to raise awareness among a wide, diverse audience that frankly might not otherwise care about environmental or political issues.

In order to build support for shark conservation, public opinion needs to better reflect reality than the current all-sharks-are-out-to-eat-people outlook. While footage of sharks swimming across a reef might not have the same 'wow factor' as great whites propelling out of the water, we must move beyond the teeth-baring, ferocious Jaws-like portrayal. As oceanic predators, shark attacks are a threat to ocean-goers, but the risk is relatively small and in many cases avoidable. More people die while driving to the beach than while at the beach, let alone from shark attacks. In fact, more people die every year from toilet-bowl products or run-ins with a bucket than shark attacks.

While humans are systematically fishing out millions upon millions of sharks every year, only six shark related fatalities were reported in 2010. Scientists, divers, environmentalists and the media must all make a concerted effort to shift the global consciousness and communicate the very real, very serious threats facing sharks and the potential consequences of sustained inaction.