Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

No Business Like Shark Business
What Sound Does a Shark Make? How About: Ka-Ching!
By Peter Dizikes., August 31, 2001

The next time you see the menacing teeth and gaping jaws of a great white shark, don’t be alarmed. Just remember: There’s good money to be made off that animal.

Indeed, as we approach the end of what Time magazine dubbed “The Summer of the Shark” in a splashy cover story, it’s worth pondering just how many ways there are to make money from the feared predators.

The shark is in fact a kind of media cash register, a menace of the seas but nonetheless a friend of entrepreneurs around the globe, including some who have probably never dipped a toe in dangerous waters.

Waiter, There’s a Shark Fin in My Soup

In the first place, the shark-fishing business is booming. Untold millions of sharks land in fishing nets every year, and to the outrage of conservationists, many have their fins hacked off and are tossed back in the ocean to die a (presumably) painful, crippled death.

Why? Well, shark fin soup is a delicacy popular throughout the Pacific Rim and pricey to boot. It’ll set you back $30 at the Hong Kong Flower Lounge, a restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif.

“A set of fins for a basking shark will bring in upwards of $1,000,” says Sean Van Sommeran, executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif. “There are stories about fisherman dumping tuna overboard to make room for sharks, because they bring in more money.”

There are about 101 ways to eat a dead shark, and you don’t need to be rich — or a Wall Street shark — to sample them all. You could also try shark tacos for $9.50 at Bergin’s Shark & Rose in San Jose, Calif., or a more old-fashioned mako shark steak for $18.95 at a restaurant called, well, The Shark, in Ocean City, Md.

And shark fishermen are determined to meet the demand.

“There are no unexplored parts of the planet,” adds Van Sommeran. “People have global positioning satellites, and they’ve mapped out plans from Japan to Madagascar to the Galapagos Islands, and they’re going for every species.”

Nigel’s Wild, Wild Cable Modem Week

But sharks mean good money on dry land, too. Take the folks at the Discovery Channel, which aired its annual summer series of shows on sharks earlier this month — that would be Nigel’s Wild, Wild Shark Week, in case you missed it. Sure, host Nigel Marven loves sharks. But so do the cable channel’s executives and accountants.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the Discovery Channel’s shark week shows got an average rating of 1.1, more than double the channel’s norm in June and July. That’s why the Discovery Channel used Nigel’s Wild, Wild Shark Week as a vehicle for an ad blitz this time around, urging the audience to buy cable modems and digital cable. In turn, cable companies displayed ads telling users they could only see the Discovery Kids Channel by ordering digital cable.

But then, it’s no secret to media executives that audiences love shark stories, especially during a slow-news summer like this one, with Congress on recess and President Bush vacationing during much of August. Many news outlets — including and ABCNEWS television shows — have given substantial coverage to the recent spate of shark attacks, mostly in Florida.

For revealing this fascination we should, perhaps, thank Jaws author Peter Benchley and filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose 1975 movie based on the book became the first film to top the $100 million mark in box-office revenues, made the cover of — inevitably — Time, and according to many a critic, ushered in the era of the big-budget, special-effects laden summer movie blockbuster. You can still take the Universal Studios tour, featuring a re-creation of the Jaws shark, for $43 (adults) or $33 (kids).

Aquariums: They Just Can’t Get Enough

And then there are the places in the business of displaying real, living sharks to fascinated visitors, such as aquariums or, in some cases, natural history museums. They try to play down the fear factor.

“The reputable aquariums are not promoting sharks as bloodthirsty killers,” says Ken Peterson, public relations manager of the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Among the sharks swimming around in the aquarium’s tanks right now are a spotted leopard shark and a brownish horn shark that looks like it would merely cuddle up to a stray surfer instead of chomping on him.

Nonetheless, when the Monterey Bay Aquarium had a couple of bigger, tougher-looking sharks in its tanks a couple years ago — “a 10-foot seven-gill shark and a prickly shark,” says Peterson — attendance surged by 50,000 a month, 33 percent above normal.

With ticket prices ranging from $7.95 for kids to $15.95 for adults, that’s a haul of $400,000 to $800,000 per month. And it’s a very good deal for the aquarium, since sharks cost just a few hundred dollars a year to feed.

“They’re not that expensive,” says Peterson. “They don’t eat that much. We feed them salmon steaks, nutritionally enriched, and they’re only fed a couple times a week, maybe once a week.”

But educational shark commerce doesn’t stop there, since no aquarium or museum is complete without a gift shop. The store at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for instance, features an entire row of children’s picture-books about sharks, with titles like The Really Sinister Savage Shark (Dk Pub Merchandise, $9.95). And just in time for the school year: your very own shark stapler (“Caution: This product may contain parts which could be harmful”), for a bargain-basement $7.95.

Up Close and Impersonal

Finally, there are those people who think that seeing a shark in an aquarium just isn’t thrilling enough.

If you’ve ever wanted to see a shark in the ocean — or view a great white from an underwater cage, as it pokes its nose through the bars — head to the Southern Hemisphere, where tour companies based in Australia and South Africa have been operating for years.

For $1,100 in U.S. dollars, you can go on a four-day trip to prime great white shark feeding grounds. This includes the chance to don a breathing apparatus and diving suit, make the plunge underwater and scare yourself silly.

According to the Web site of Calypso Star Charters in Australia, doing so is “the ultimate adventure tour that puts you face to face with a Great White Shark.”

With the possible exception of the Universal Studios Tour, that is.


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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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Photo credit: Flickr user alb Marcos, via a Creative Commons license