Are you a shark enthusiast for whom diving amongst these underwater predators is on your bucket list? Well, if and when that happens, there are three things you will definitely not want to do, according to shark advocate Dr. David Shiffman.

Marine biologist and shark advocate Dr. David Shiffman
Marine biologist and shark advocate Dr. David Shiffman

The past five to six years have seen the scuba diving community become fertile ground for anti-science extremists, Shiffman said this week at an event in Washington, DC organized by Blue Planet Scuba.

“I love talking to scuba divers — first of all because I am a scuba diver. Scuba divers love the ocean. Scuba divers care about the ocean. Scuba divers love just geeking out about marine biology and they also want to know what they can do to help. But for whatever reason maybe the last five or six years . . . the scuba diving community has been fertile ground for conspiracy theorists and snake-oil salesmen and anti-science extremists. . . . If you ever in any situation hear someone say, ‘This problem that you’re hearing about that you care about, all the experts are wrong, only I can solve it, give me all your money, and don’t listen to the experts,’ run away please.”

Additionally, divers shouldn’t ride or wrestle or in any way handle sharks in the wild.

“The idea here is ‘Look, I’m dealing with this wild predator, I can mess with it and annoy it and stress it out and it’s not gonna eat me, therefore we should protect it.’ That is a deeply un-serious approach to conservation. There is one person in particular who I have had repeated dealings with who has claimed that by doing this, they were able to convince the State Legislature of Hawaii to ban all shark fishing in Hawaii. That’s not true — it is absolutely still legal to fish for sharks in Hawaii. That person is lying to you to get people to sign a petition.”

Another thing Shiffman sees happening a lot is there is a lot of skepticism that common shark research methods used by scientists — like tagging sharks to track their movements — is bad and unnecessary and scientists are “just doing it to get famous somehow.” He used as an example how his wife explained his “fame” to her family members at their wedding.

“She said, ‘David is really, really famous in a tiny part of the world that most people don’t care about at all.’ Yeah, I can live with that.”

Shiffman pointed out that the trailing edge of a shark’s fin doesn’t have a blood supply or nerve supply, so if a tag is attached properly, it’s less painful than a human ear piercing and does less permanent damage.

“These three things in particular, if people would stop signing and making these goofy-assed petitions and yelling at me about common research methods and manhandling sharks to get a cool picture for Instagram, I would be very happy. These three things combined with misunderstandings about what shark finning means are probably about 20 to 25 percent of the reasons why I drink.”

Shiffman said nearly all the scuba divers he has met really want to help, and many try to help. But wanting to help and trying to help is not the same thing as actually helping.

“Ask an expert. We are available. I meet lots of people who would much rather found the Silver Spring Chapter of the Save the Sharks Club and be the president of that than volunteer to help an existing nonprofit that could really get a lot of work done if only they got 10 more hours of volunteer time from a great person. But then, you don’t get to say you’re the president of the Sharks Club and people don’t wanna do that. If that’s the motivation that you’re using, you are not in it for the sharks.”

Shiffman noted that this is a very technical world, the details matter, expertise matters, experience matters, and credentials matter.

“I would love to get enthusiastic people to help with a lot of things, but what I don’t want is for you to watch a documentary once, assume you’re the world’s greatest expert in that, and create your own nonprofit group and multimillion-dollar ad campaign that then I have to spend time debunking. This happens a lot — not multimillion-dollar but multihundred-dollar at least. Happens pretty regularly. Those of you who follow me on social media seen me rant about this all the time, pretty much. Ask. If you want to help, but you don’t know what to do, don’t guess. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s a lot of wheels out there that need a little extra grease. And you can be that grease and you can help and you can really make a real difference but your name will not be on the wheel — yet.

“You do that for a while, and you get experience and you get training, and you get practice, and you get knowledge, then you can start your own organization. But I deal with a lot of people who say. ‘Hey I’m thinking about starting my own shark conservation nonprofit,’ and my first question is, ‘Awesome! It’s so cool that you want to help. What are you gonna do that’s different from what’s already happening in this very, very, very crowded space?’ And a lot of people say to me, ‘Oh I didn’t know anyone else was working on this.’ That means you’re not ready. That doesn’t mean you’re bad, that doesn’t mean your motivations are somehow impure, but it means you’re not ready to be the president of the Silver Springs Save the Sharks Club.”

To learn more about Shiffman’s work, check out his website at DavidShiffmanCV.com or follow him on Twitter at @WhySharksMatter.

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