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Humans and Sharks

Changing Public Perceptions and Overcoming Fear to Facilitate Shark Conservation

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  • 1 School of Psychology, Social Work & Social Policy, University of South Australia
  • | 2 School of Psychology, Social Work & Social Policy, University of South AustraliaElissa.Pearson@unisa.edu.au
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There is worldwide concern regarding the conservation status of sharks. Public perceptions of sharks, often based on inaccurate negative stereotypes transmitted through the media and popular culture, appear to be limiting support for their conservation. Yet, there is a paucity of research exploring the knowledge and attitudes of the general public regarding sharks and their conservation, as well as approaches to improve these factors and encourage greater conservation support. The primary aim of this review is to explore the role that psychology, education, and the media might play in engendering greater support for shark conservation through increasing knowledge and shifting attitudes relating to sharks, ultimately increasing public support for, and participation in, shark conservation. Directions for future research to further understand and enhance public engagement with shark conservation issues are also discussed.

Abstract

There is worldwide concern regarding the conservation status of sharks. Public perceptions of sharks, often based on inaccurate negative stereotypes transmitted through the media and popular culture, appear to be limiting support for their conservation. Yet, there is a paucity of research exploring the knowledge and attitudes of the general public regarding sharks and their conservation, as well as approaches to improve these factors and encourage greater conservation support. The primary aim of this review is to explore the role that psychology, education, and the media might play in engendering greater support for shark conservation through increasing knowledge and shifting attitudes relating to sharks, ultimately increasing public support for, and participation in, shark conservation. Directions for future research to further understand and enhance public engagement with shark conservation issues are also discussed.

Introduction

Much of the natural world is currently threatened by human actions, with numerous non-human animal species being driven toward extinction—including sharks (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010). Fearful stereotypes of sharks appear to have negatively influenced public perceptions of sharks around the world (Philpott, 2002), representing a barrier to greater conservation efforts (Neff & Hueter, 2012). Yet, there is currently a lack of research exploring such public perceptions of sharks or providing guidance regarding how to encourage support for their conservation. This paper reviews how media portrayals may have contributed to current negative public perceptions of sharks and considers how education, personal experience, and the media may be harnessed to change the way sharks are perceived—with the ultimate goal of engendering greater conservation action.

Conservation Status of Shark Species

It was once thought that marine life was so prolific that it was immune to extinction (Roberts, 2007). This is now known to be incorrect (Reynolds, Dulvy, Goodwin, & Hutchings, 2005), with estimates that 90% of large predatory fish have been removed from the oceans since the advent of industrialized fishing (Myers & Worm, 2003). Sharks are particularly vulnerable due to being slow-growing, late to reach sexual maturity, and having long gestation periods and low fecundity (Myers & Worm, 2005). A recent iucn Shark Specialist Group (Dulvy et al., 2014) study, which assessed the conservation status of shark and ray populations globally, found that >25% of the species evaluated were threatened. Furthermore, almost half of shark species observed lacked sufficient data to form an evaluation, and only 37.4% of all species assessed were estimated to be safe, constituting the lowest safe level among any vertebrate group.

The pressures on shark populations are well-known and are primarily the result of human actions—particularly overfishing (including deliberate targeting of sharks for their meat or fins, as well as by-catch of sharks [Clarke, Milner-Gulland, & Cemare, 2007; Dulvy et al., 2014; Myers & Worm, 2003; Spiegel, 2001]). Other threats include recreational fishing, habitat degradation, climate change, and persecution (the destruction of sharks to prevent them from interfering with human activities/recreational use of the ocean) (Babcock, 2008; Dulvy et al., 2014).

Declines in shark species are considered a global conservation concern (Dulvy et al., 2014; Lucifora, Garcia, & Worm, 2011). Although the ecological role of sharks is not currently well understood, sharks have existed as top ocean predators for over 400 million years and their removal could cause complex and unpredictable alterations in marine ecosystems (Baum & Worm, 2009; Myers, Baum, Shepard, Powers, & Peterson, 2007). In some areas, the removal of large sharks has led to cascading changes in the balance of marine food webs, as the predatory release of sharks’ prey species allows their populations to increase, causing changes to lower trophic levels (Ferretti, Worm, Britten, Heithaus, & Lotze, 2010).

While countries around the world have already made some efforts to reduce impacts on shark populations—that is, introducing by-catch mitigation strategies, local bans on shark-finning, the creation of marine reserves, improved management of fisheries, and/or eco-tourism practices (Fischer, Erikstein, D’Offay, Guggisberg, & Barone, 2012; Porter, 2012)—the current conservation status of sharks suggests there is still more to be done. In fact, Worm et al. (2013) note the average exploitation rate for sharks exceeds the average rebound rate for many shark populations, contributing to ongoing population declines. The authors of this paper suggest that current efforts to protect shark populations could be enhanced by also tackling shark conservation at an individual level.

Public Perceptions as a Barrier to Conservation Support

While there is significant work required of scientists and governments to ensure the conservation of shark species (i.e., conducting research and implementing effective policies and regulations), public participation in, and support for, the conservation of sharks also plays an important role since pressures on shark populations are a result of human behavior (Fischer et al., 2012; Simpfendorfer, Heupel, White, & Dulvy, 2011). Schultz (2011) argues that changing the behavior of individuals may indeed be the only way to fully address human-created environmental issues, including biodiversity loss. This is supported by a recent meta-analysis revealing personal pro-environmental behavior can be successfully enhanced though behavioral-science based interventions (Osbaldiston & Schott, 2011).

To understand current barriers to greater public interest and involvement in shark conservation, it is important to consider historical portrayals of sharks that have impacted the human-shark relationship and the way sharks are often perceived. (In using the term “public,” the authors recognize that this is an imprecise term and there are in fact multiple “publics” [i.e., Hou, 2004] with varied knowledge, values, interests, experiences and conservation practices pertaining to sharks; however, this term is used to represent the broader need to engage the global community with shark conservation issues.) Arguably, especially within Western countries, sharks appear to have suffered from a negative public image (Philpott, 2002; Tiffin, 2009). While some degree of fear and caution towards some species of shark is realistic, the threat that sharks pose to humans has historically been overdramatized (Neff & Hueter, 2012).

It was often thought that sharks (particularly white sharks: Carcharodon carcharias) were “man-eaters,” specifically targeting humans, and that certain “rogue” sharks could develop a taste for human flesh. This image of the rogue, man-eating shark was saliently depicted in the movie Jaws (Spielberg, 1975), which portrayed the Great White Shark as a terrifying monster, creating public hysteria about sharks at the time of its release (Dearden, Topelko, & Ziegler, 2008; Philpott, 2002). Following Jaws, some 40+ horror movies featuring killer sharks have been released, including Deep Blue Sea and Sharknado (as cited in Julio, 2014). This, in combination with popular shark week programs broadcast in over 72 countries (Kwietniewska, 2013) and sensationalized media coverage of shark “attacks” (Philpott, 2002), has fed the public fear of sharks.

A recent study analyzing shark portrayals in the Australian and American media found articles reporting “attacks” were five times more common than articles discussing conservation, and 59% of articles emphasized negative effects of sharks (e.g., human injury or death, impacts on recreational activity) such that the authors stated “to the extent that media reflects social opinion, our results highlight problems for shark conservation” (Muter, Gore, Gledhill, Lamont, & Huveneers, 2013, p. 187). Since most people do not have the opportunity to personally observe sharks in their natural environment, the fictionalized and predominantly negative narrative experienced through media representations becomes the main source documenting and informing human relationships to sharks (Kwietniewska, 2013). This appears to have created a damaging perception of sharks that exceeds their actual threat to humans and makes them more difficult to relate to (Muter et al., 2013; Philpott, 2002).

For instance, the International Shark Attack File reported 72 “unprovoked attacks” (i.e., incidents whereby a shark “attacks” a human in the shark’s natural habitat without any provocation) on humans globally in 2014, which resulted in three fatalities (isaf, 2014a). Similarly, according to the Australian Shark Attack File, the Australian average for the past decade has been around 13 unprovoked “attacks” per year (asaf, 2014), with two unprovoked fatalities in 2014. By comparison, there were over 1,150 motor vehicle fatalities in Australia alone in 2014, as well as an average of 33 fatalities from lightning each year in the us from 2006 to 2013 (Australian Road Deaths Database, 2014; Jensenius, Jr., 2014). This negative perception and heightened fear toward sharks is reflected in the attitudes identified by Driscoll (1995), where sharks were rated as one of the least popular species, including high perceptions of their dangerousness, strong perceptions of sharks as unlovable, and negative perceptions of their importance. Given this, it is unsurprising shark “attacks” were rated as within the top two concerns for South Australian beachgoers, and participants significantly over-estimated the number of fatal and non-fatal “attacks” (Crossley, Collins, Sutton, & Huveneers, 2014). Thus to foster greater shark conservation behavior and support, it will be important to overcome the dominantly frightening stereotype which prevails at present.

Mechanisms for Change and Improving Public Support for Shark Conservation

One mechanism to achieve this change in public perception and conservation support is via education. There is a large body of literature that has investigated associations between knowledge, attitudes, and behavior across numerous domains. These associations are recognized as being complex, contested, and dependent upon both the specific issue at hand and personal and social context of the individual (e.g., Clayton & Myers, 2009; Miller, 2001; Sturgis & Allum, 2004). However, in relation to animals specifically, generally higher knowledge is associated with more positive attitudes (Barney, Mintzes, & Yen, 2005; Prokop, Kubiatko, & Fancovicova, 2008) and in turn, higher knowledge and more positive attitudes also influence conservation behavioral intentions (including those pertaining to biodiversity conservation; Pearson, Dorrian, & Litchfield, 2013). Put simply, “only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved” (Jane Goodall, reported in Denys & Holmes, 1998, p. 106).

From a psychological perspective, knowledge is important both to dismantle stereotypes (beliefs about the characteristics of a group that guide information processing, attitudes, and behavior—such as that sharks are all vicious and dangerous) as well as to alter the cognitive component of attitudes (Donsbach, 2008; Breckler, 1984). Furthermore, sufficient knowledge regarding aspects such as threats to sharks, and how an individual can reduce their impacts/support conservation (procedural knowledge), are a necessary pre-condition for behavioral action (Kaiser & Fuhrer, 2003).

Within the limited literature available (predominantly with Australian, American, and British samples), there is support for the notion that knowledge about sharks influences attitudes. Thompson and Mintzes (2002) utilized concept maps and a shark attitude inventory to measure knowledge and attitudes of American students. There was a moderately strong correlation such that students with more accurate and complex knowledge were likely to hold more positive views of sharks. Moreover, low levels of knowledge were associated with more utilitarian (concern for the material value of sharks and their body parts) and negativistic (fear, indifference, or dislike) perceptions of sharks, reinforcing that current views about sharks may be perpetuated by misunderstandings and inaccurate media portrayals.

Further support that higher knowledge is associated with more positive attitudes can be drawn from an exploration of perceptions of sharks in a group targeted for their interest in marine environments (surveyed at the National Maritime Aquarium in Plymouth or the Marine and Coastal Policy Forum). Among this group, knowledge about sharks, their role in ecosystems, population declines, and the primary threats to shark species was high. This, in turn, was associated with largely positive attitudes toward sharks, moral rejection of the finning practice, and a strong belief that sharks should be protected. Only 26% associated sharks with fear and danger, while negative stereotypes (i.e., sharks are “man eaters” or “cold blooded killers”) were mostly absent. Although participants were generally aware of the predatory nature of sharks, this did not conflict with recognition of sharks’ positive attributes (Friedrich, Jefferson, & Glegg, 2014).

The positive effect of education on attitudes towards sharks is further supported by Seraphin (2010). American high school students’ attitudes towards sharks were measured before and after attending a series of classes, which aimed to address common stereotypes. The educational intervention also included an experiential component where some participants were able to visit a marine biology institute and experience live, captive sharks. While students generally retained some justified level of fear towards sharks, negative attitudes significantly decreased, while positive attitudes and the scientific content of attitudes both significantly increased. A reduction in stereotypes also approached significance (p = .059). During the study, students expressed surprise at learning of the fragility of sharks and also reported being unaware of the diversity of shark species, many of whom are not dangerous to humans. Seraphin suggested this new knowledge, which challenged negative stereotypes, combined with exposure to sharks, led to the positive changes in attitudes. The potential value of increased exposure to sharks was also demonstrated by Friedrich et al (2014), who found participants with previous experience with sharks in the wild held more positive attitudes towards sharks and stronger beliefs that they should be protected.

The importance of shifting public attitudes toward sharks is twofold. Firstly, those with more favorable attitudes toward sharks and their conservation are more likely to make behavioral choices consistent with these attitudes (in accordance with the Theory of Planned Behavior; Ajzen, 1991; Ajzen & Fishbein, 2005; Armitage & Conner, 2001) and that serve to protect shark populations (i.e., purchasing sustainable seafood products, avoiding consumption of shark fin soup, advocating for greater shark protection measures). Beyond this, such changes are also important on a broader level for their capacity to shift social norms and ultimately laws regarding the conservation of specific species. Whales, elephants, and manatees provide just a few examples of how greater public understanding about, appreciation for, and positive attitudes toward, animals (discussed subsequently) can mobilize support for conservation measures.

Changing Attitudes and Social Norms to Achieve Conservation Outcomes

In her review regarding changing social perceptions of the Florida Manatee, Goedeke (2004) explains how in the early 1980s there was very limited public awareness regarding manatees, illustrated by only 26% of Americans in a National Survey correctly responding that the manatee was not an insect. Conservation groups set out to replace this lack of knowledge and apathy with knowledge and sympathy, through investing in scientific research to generate new understandings about the species, and through public education. In just two decades, perceptions of this species shifted dramatically, from being “hideously ugly” or “grotesque” to being “intelligent,” “social,” “friendly,” and “charismatic,” as well as serving an important role in the ecosystem. Ultimately this led to public support for their protection, better legal protection, and public funding for manatee protection through purchasing “adoptions” and special license plates.

Attitudinal differences regarding whales also greatly influence behaviors impacting their conservation. For example, Freeman and Kellert (1994) studied attitudes towards whales in whaling and non-whaling countries. The majority of people surveyed in non-whaling countries were against any form of hunting and supportive of strict protection policies, while the majority in whaling countries supported hunting whales sustainably. Additionally, in non-whaling countries, whale meat was given the highest disapproval rating of any meat, while in whaling countries participants neither disapproved of nor approved of eating whale meat. The predominantly negative attitudes towards whaling in non-whaling countries have contributed to pressure from these countries to ban the hunting of whales globally (Anderson, 2011), providing an example of how public support for a species can alter individual behavior (disapproval of eating whale meat), as well as influence political outcomes (bans on whaling).

Regarding the origins of such attitudinal differences, Anderson (2011) suggests that in anti-whaling countries (such as the United States and Australia) attitudes towards cetaceans have been largely affected by the media including movies such as Flipper and Free Willy. Such programs have portrayed cetaceans as intelligent, altruistic, social animals, similar to humans, and led to the belief they should not be hunted for food. This, like the case of the manatee, highlights what could be a powerful tool for mobilizing public support for the conservation of a species. Viewing nonhuman animals as possessing humanlike characteristics in this way is considered a form of anthropomorphism. While from a scientific perspective anthropomorphism has often been seen negatively (particularly in relation to studying animal behavior; Wynne, 2004, 2007), in that human traits are conferred to non-human animals species mistakenly or without evidence, others argue for the potential harm of “anthropodenial” (de Waal, 2009) and the potential utility of anthropomorphism to help predict and understand animal behavior; help humans take another species’ point of view; acknowledge similarities between human and non-human animal species; increase appreciation of animals; trigger empathy, affection and protection; and to support conservation goals (see Chan, 2012; Horowitz & Bekoff, 2007; Mitman, 2005; Root-Bernstein, Douglas, Smith, & Verissimo, 2013). However, anthropomorphism must be applied carefully in conservation contexts to avoid potential negative outcomes. Specifically, Chan (2012) cautions this should focus on true species attributes and shared scientifically established features between them and humans, while also emphasize promoting healthy ecosystems. Root-Bernstein et al. (2013) echo the importance of ensuring anthropomorphism does not conflict with broader conservation goals, or create unrealistic expectations of animal species.

Mitman (2005) reports a specific example of how anthropomorphism has been utilized to encourage the conservation of elephants. Through individualizing elephants by giving them human names and emphasizing their unique personalities, social nature, and rich mental and emotional life, they became more appealing to film and television productions, which led to greater public interest in their conservation. This is supported by Kellert (1996, p. 21), who explains that people are more empathetic, and hold more positive attitudes, towards animals whom they view as having humanlike traits. A study by Martín-Forés, Martín-López, and Montes (2013) found that in Spain, vertebrate animals who were closer to humans physically or phylogenetically, and therefore more easily anthropomorphized by the public, tended to receive more conservation attention. However, Root-Bernstein et al. (2013) argue that the potential scope for anthropomorphism as a conservation tool is broader, with evidence that people are able to see even plants as having humanlike traits. Similarly, Chan (2012) suggests that “anthropomorphism will be most useful to garner empathy toward species that are perceived to be non-charismatic”—such as sharks (p. 1891).

While the predatory nature of (some) sharks may limit the tendency to anthropomorphize them positively, some individuals do view sharks as possessing positive humanlike characteristics. Friedrich et al. (2014) reported that sharks were seen as fascinating, interesting, beautiful, misunderstood, and awe-inspiring among their sample with a strong interest in marine environments. Other traits that could be highlighted include intelligence and problem-solving abilities (Schluessel, 2015), social behavior (Bres, 1993), and curiosity (Hammerschlag, Martin, Fallows, Collier, & Lawrence, 2012). Through highlighting characteristics valued by humans, in media portrayals and via education, the public may be able to more easily relate to sharks, increasing empathy for an often-maligned species and leading to improved attitudes and support for their conservation.

As reflected by the whaling examples, collective public attitudes or social norms can play a significant role in shaping policy such that approaches which educate and change public attitudes can also encourage greater government involvement in species protection. Evidence for this can be taken from the WildAid shark fin awareness campaign in China, which reached the public with pro-shark conservation messages through the media and enlisted celebrities including Jackie Chan, Yao Ming, and David Beckham as spokespeople, resulting in significant reductions in shark fin sales (Whitcraft et al., 2014). Coinciding with these changing public perceptions, in 2013 the Chinese Government made the decision to ban shark fin soup from all official functions (Xinhuanet, 2013).

Conversely, negative public attitudes and fear can lead to government measures that do not serve the conservation interests of sharks. For instance, in the case of shark “attacks” on beach users, there is often public pressure for action to be taken, as well as economic concern about the effect of such incidents on tourism (Curtis et al., 2012). Neff (2012) analyzed beach safety policy responses to shark “attacks” in New South Wales, Australia, and concluded that politicians have primarily aimed to appease public concerns and had little incentive to protect endangered species who pose a threat to the public.

This issue was again brought to light in 2014, when in response to a series of “attacks” on the west coast of Australia, the West Australian Government trialed measures which included the capture and killing of large sharks considered to be dangerous to humans, through baited drum lines (Barnett & Buswell, 2013). While such an approach is consistent with Neff’s (2012) findings, it received mixed responses. Following large protests across Australia against the measures (sbs, 2014, February 1) and calls from international marine scientists to reconsider the use of lethal methods of shark population control (Kempster, 2013; sbs, July 4, 2014), the Environmental Protection Agency of Western Australia recommended that the measures should be discontinued (epa, September 11, 2014). These events reflect the divided opinion of the Australian (and wider) public on aspects of the shark-human relationship, and highlight how fear and poor attitudes toward shark species may influence the policy agenda, encourage persecution, and more broadly serve as a barrier to shark conservation.

Directions to Improve Public Support for Shark Conservation

From the literature reviewed, evidence supports the potential role of education in improving public engagement with shark conservation. Such an approach needs to be multifaceted and tailored specifically to the unique context where it is intended for delivery. The approach also needs to be sensitive to the multiple publics who may engage with the information, with different knowledge, values, ideologies, interests, and relationships with marine environments. This will require the coordinated efforts of governments, scientists, schools (through formal curriculum), and ngo’s, and should incorporate varied free-choice learning experiences (including tv, social media, science centers and/or wildlife tourism experiences), providing the public with multiple learning opportunities in recognition that “most of the public’s science learning is ‘extra-curricular,’ driven by individual needs and interests and achieved through the vehicle of free-choice learning” (Falk, Storksdieck, & Dierking, 2007, p. 464). The authors suggest such approaches should generally:

  • include a component aimed at increasing knowledge about sharks and shark conservation issues (Thompson & Mintzes, 2002);

  • include an experiential component (Seraphin, 2010);

  • highlight traits of sharks which are similar to, and valued by, humans (Root-Bernstein et al., 2013); and

  • include specific information describing how the public can contribute to the protection of sharks (Friedrich et al., 2014).

To be effective, information must be presented in a way that instils salient beliefs in the learner regarding sharks and their conservation, and connects shark conservation issues with people’s lives (Ajzen, 1991).

Ceríaco (2012) suggests educational programs seeking to improve attitudes toward species who pose a threat to humans should provide a more realistic portrayal and dispel misperceptions about the degree of danger to humans, highlight their vulnerability to population decline, and raise awareness regarding the ecological role and “usefulness” of the species. Therefore, education about sharks should explain that only a small number of shark species actually pose a threat to humans, and that fatal shark bites are actually rare in comparison to many other common dangers (West, 2011). Additionally, understandings of shark behavior and strategies to reduce the risk of an encounter (isaf, 2014b) could be included, to reduce public anxiety and provide some sense of control over the level of risk individuals expose themselves to. Lastly, the education should seek to help the public relate to sharks through highlighting humanlike characteristics such as being majestic, intelligent, and misunderstood, in an effort to generate greater empathy, care, and respect for sharks (e.g., Mitman, 2005; Root-Bernstein et al., 2013).

Including an experiential component in such initiatives could be approached in a number of ways. While providing direct experience with live sharks may be difficult, video footage of sharks could perhaps be utilized to demonstrate sharks are not necessarily aggressive towards humans (as depicted here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGzrETzRp5E). While it is not yet known if this would lead to similar improvements in attitude as have been reported with live sharks (Friedrich et al., 2014; Seraphin, 2010), the ease by which this approach could be delivered (i.e., television, smartphones, and the internet) makes it worthy of further research. Support for its potential utility also comes from a special issue in the journal Environmental Education Research on the role new media can play in environmental education (Volume 17, Issue 6, 2011).

Alternatively, marine wildlife tours, which often pair education with direct experiences with marine wildlife, have been found to positively influence attitudes towards the conservation of marine species (Zeppel & Muloin, 2008). This is particularly relevant to sharks due to increasing interest in shark ecotourism (Dearden, Topelko, & Ziegler, 2008), as it provides an economic incentive to keep sharks alive (Gallagher & Hammerschlag, 2011). Such programs should again highlight traits of sharks which may help individuals to relate and empathize with them (Root-Bernstein et al., 2013).

To begin to shift negative stereotypes which inform societal norms regarding sharks, it is additionally important to encourage more positive stories in the media. Friedrich et al. (2014) found their participants’ positive views on sharks had likely been influenced by positive media coverage preceding the study, such as the documentary Sharkwater by filmmaker Rob Stewart (2006). This documentary presents video footage depicting humans in the same frame as sharks, alongside salient information regarding shark conservation issues (Hughes, 2011), both of which challenge negative stereotypes and perceptions regarding sharks.

Furthermore, Neff (2012) argues that the language used by the media should be changed, referring to “bites” rather than “attacks,” as the word “attack” implies a level of intent to harm on the part of the shark that is not supported by evidence. Peschak (2006) supplies further suggestions for regulating the media’s coverage of shark “attacks” to ensure that sharks are more accurately portrayed, including seminars and a handbook developed by shark experts for media reporters, a list of approved shark experts for media comment, encouragement to report positive shark stories, and careful use of photographs/imagery. By altering the way the media portrays sharks and providing greater recognition of the significant threat that humans pose to sharks, a more realistic view of the threat that sharks pose to humans could be fostered—potentially leading to a social environment where both human safety concerns and shark conservation issues can be addressed simultaneously, while discontinuing the perpetuation of overly negative public perceptions of sharks.

Finally, to encourage the translation of more positive attitudes into behavior, the public must be supplied with information on how individuals can contribute to the protection of threatened shark species (i.e., the “how to,” as well as the “why to”). The information can address a number of the barriers to active involvement in shark conservation that have been cited in the literature (see Friedrich et al., 2014) and provide guidelines for the public to actively participate in the protection of sharks. While more research is required to identify which behaviors individuals could alter to best support the protection of sharks, perhaps the most obvious way that the public are connected to threats faced by shark populations is through the consumption of seafood.

Industrial overfishing is the most significant threat to shark populations (Dulvy et al., 2014), with bycatch of sharks resulting in a high level of shark mortality (Cosandey-Godin & Morgan, 2011). By demanding better labeling of seafood, educating consumers regarding shark products (i.e., flake) and broader marine conservation issues (i.e., by-catch and overfishing), and accordingly encouraging eating only “shark-safe” seafood, all seafood eaters could begin contributing in a meaningful way to the protection of sharks.

Despite some challenges in implementation (such as concerns regarding consumer understanding of issues and label confusion, consumer “distrust” of certain product labels, and skepticism regarding certification processes and management; e.g., Eden, Bear, & Walker, 2008) there is already precedent with the “dolphin safe” label for tuna products (Earth Island Institute, 2014). The label was among the most recognized (42.5-51.2%) and supported through purchasing behavior (35.0%-37.2%) among a study of consumers in London and Washington, respectively (Gutierrez & Thornton, 2014).

Furthermore, success for a similar campaign to educate consumers about the role of palm oil in deforestation and declining orangutan populations, which resulted in reduced consumer purchases of palm oil products and driving a market for certified sustainable palm oil production (Pearson, Lowry, Dorrian, & Litchfield, 2014; Zoos Victoria, 2014), provides tentative support that providing a clear “call to action” can help to mobilize public support and lead to direct conservation behavior. However, it is important to acknowledge, particularly in the context of marine conservation issues typically being poorly understood (e.g., Steel, Smith, Opsommer, Curiel, & Steel, 2005), that eco-labels can only be effective if they are provided in association with the “proper context and understanding by consumers”: that is, awareness of the problem which underpins the need for the label (Gutierrez & Thornton, 2014, p. 8199). Thus, better labeling should be seen as complementary to public education rather than something that sufficiently provides it.

Conclusion

This paper has outlined the numerous pressures on shark populations resulting from human activity and argued that since human behavior is the cause of declines in shark populations, changing human attitudes and behavior is an important part of the solution (Schultz, 2011). Based on the literature available, key barriers to greater public engagement with shark conservation issues appear to be a lack of knowledge about sharks and their importance in marine ecosystems, coupled with negative public attitudes. Such attitudes include high levels of fear, which likely stem from historically negative and sensationalized media portrayals of sharks.

Through education and strategies designed to (1) provide a more realistic portrayal of shark species; (2) overcome the prevailing predominantly frightening stereotype; and (3) improve public attitudes and societal norms surrounding sharks; the authors argue that greater public (and political) support can be achieved for their protection (Ceríaco, 2012). This is consistent with research demonstrating associations between knowledge of and/or experiences with sharks with more positive attitudes; historical accounts of the impact of changed public perceptions on the conservation of other species (i.e., manatees); and evidence for the influence of consumer purchasing power and social norms/will to shape industry practice and government policy. Specifically, an engaged and informed public can reduce human pressures on shark populations by choosing not to buy or consume shark products (i.e., shark fins, flake) or products with high-levels of shark by-catch; they can advocate for shark protection and oppose the persecution of sharks and can also contribute more broadly through actions such as reducing their greenhouse gas emissions/climate change impacts.

The authors hope this review will provide an impetus for further important research which seeks to (a) expand the literature base and our understanding of public knowledge and attitudes regarding sharks, and potential barriers to conservation support, from a broader cross-section of countries around the world; and (b) implement and explore the effectiveness of varied educational strategies aimed at improving public support for shark conservation among different populations. Through such work and research, perhaps public concern for the wellbeing of shark species could equal public interest in the conservation of well-liked cetacean species such as whales and dolphins? These intelligent, curious, graceful, and often misunderstood beings require protection from the human activities that threaten their survival, not least due to their 400-million-year history and important role in the health of our marine ecosystems.

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