Shark Week is back.
Fandom — and possibly fear — of the fierce fish is likely to surge once again with Discovery Channel’s week-long programming on everything sharks, a television tradition that started back in the 1980s.
Shark obsession is especially noticeable at the shore, having to do, of course, with our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the back bays, but also with the prestigious marine science program at Stockton University and some local researchers who are studying the marine predators.
Elizabeth Lacey, assistant professor of marine science at Stockton, said there is a general fascination with sharks, and much of that is fear-based.
“It’s almost a charismatic animal in the way it behaves. It’s a large organism that people fear,” Lacey said, especially since most people’s experience with sharks comes from scary movies such as “Jaws.”
But when her students work around sharks, she said, they experience not fear but an adrenaline rush.
For example, several of her Stockton students traveled to Florida earlier this summer as part of a hands-on marine sciences program, which included tagging sharks. Much of the work is being done with Derek Burkholder through the Fort Lauderdale-based Guy Harvey Research Institute, which works on conservation of marine species and their habitats.
“The heart starts pounding. If we’re measuring the animal, your heart is pounding,” she said. “Then you release the shark. Maybe you get addicted to it.”
Stockton University’s Marine Field Station, based in Port Republic, will be featured Friday …
Lacey’s personal expertise is not in sharks, but more in smaller fish and plants. But she studies sharks because of their role in the food web of marine life, as an apex predator.
The first time Lacey saw the ocean was during a family trip to Disneyland. Growing up in Ohio, there weren’t many opportunities to study ocean life, she said. Stockton offers the opportunity to learn and do research in multiple environments.
Chelsea Shields, a Stockton marine science graduate, worked on an expedition with OCEARCH, a nonprofit group that researches and tracks animals such as great white sharks. If the organization sounds familiar, it may be because it tagged and tracks Mary Lee, the great white shark that visited South Jersey recently and that also has nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter.
Shields started a local shark week in 2015 so that students in the marine science program could learn more about the real fish, rather than the animals featured in movies like “Sharknado.”
But TV and movies also have a positive side when it comes to marine research.
Many of Lacey’s students said they became interested in marine sciences after watching animal-centric nonfiction television programs on the National Geographic or Animal Planet channels. In that way, she said, they are more likely to come to study sharks from a place of curiosity rather than fear.
Much of the research done by local shark experts is aimed at conservation.
Vineland native and Rutgers University-Camden alum Derek Dapp was working earlier this year in Australia, completing doctoral research on how to reduce the threat of extinction for sharks.
Dapp’s research focused on fishermen and fisheries that accidentally catch sharks in commercial fishing gear.
In fact, researchers say man is a much greater threat to sharks than sharks are to men.
They may not be playful or cute, like marine mammals, but people can still learn to love sharks, Lacey said.
“People love sharks. But because people fear them, they think, ‘We need to catch the shark and kill it’,” she said. “But a lot of my students tell me, ‘I really want to learn about it because I want to make a difference.’”