You are more likely to die from a bicycle accident, lightning strike, or mauling by alligator or bear than from a shark attack.
The president of the United States does not like sharks.
On 4 July 2013, before he took office, Donald Trump announced to the public a mix of disregard and seeming respect: “Sorry folks, I’m just not a fan of sharks – and don’t worry, they will be around long after we are gone.”
Two minutes later, he added: “Sharks are last on my list – other than perhaps the losers and haters of the World!”
On Friday, a long interview with an actor in pornographic films, Stephanie Clifford, provided more details of Trump’s apparent feelings.
Clifford, whose professional name is Stormy Daniels and who claimed in the interview to have had a 2006 affair with Trump, told InTouch magazine he was fascinated by the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week special.
“He is obsessed with sharks” she said. “Terrified of sharks. He was like, ‘I donate to all these charities and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.’ He was like riveted. He was like obsessed. It’s so strange, I know.”
The president’s fears are disproportionate.
There were 84 shark attacks worldwide in 2016, according to a University of Florida project, including four fatalities (none in the US). According to the National Safety Council, you are more likely to die from a bicycle accident, lightning strike, mauling by alligator or bear, dog bite, fireworks, tornado, wasp or bee sting, legal execution, fall from a bed, or an asteroid, than by a shark attack.
“More people are bitten by other people on the NYC subway than by sharks in the whole world,” tweeted David Shiffman, a conservation biologist at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. “Sharks are just not a threat to humans. And in fact, humans are better off with healthy shark populations than we are without healthy shark populations, because of the important ecosystem services that sharks provide.”
The oceans, which have served up food to humanity for millennia, would not be any healthier without sharks in them. Knocking apex predators off the top of the food chain is like cutting a leg out from a dinner table: it throws the whole thing off balance.
If sharks do not keep other animals in check, those animals wipe out their own food sources, which in turn create bizarre and often unhealthy conditions. Without natural competition, an ecosystem swings wildly between dominant species. After a while the winners do not seem to be humans, but algae and jellyfish – life that can thrive in undersea desolation.
Humans are flirting with such oceanic dystopia, killing as many as 100 millionsharks a year, in accidental bycatch and en masse for shark finning. For several generations, shark populations have declined without much interest from the public, thanks in part to their often sensationalized portrayal, Shark Week included.
“If someone got all their shark facts from Shark Week, it’s no surprise they’d be terrified and oppose conservation,” Shiffman said.
On Capitol Hill on Friday, the Louisiana Republican senator John Kennedy was asked about Trump’s remarks. He declined to comment specifically but asked: “He didn’t curse about the sharks, did he?”
Sharks are far from dead-eyed killers. They vary from anvil-headed lurkers to plant-eating Floridians, to several species of camouflaged ambush carpets. Increasingly, biologists have observed distinctive behaviors in individual sharks, including whale sharks and great whites.
Sharks have social lives, albeit mysterious ones. They have a literal sixth sense, some live in massive schools, and a few may have lived longer than the United States, through its founding, a civil war, two world wars and the election of Donald Trump.
In that regard, the president had a point: sharks have a knack for survival. Whether they can survive humans remains to be seen.