As millions of Americans settled in to watch the first documentaries of 'Shark Week' on Sunday night, Brick's Steve Nagiewicz had some cautionary thoughts.
"They try to put a lot of education into it," he said, of the Discovery Channel's week-long marathon of shark documentaries, "but in many cases [they're] staging things to get that film."
Nagiewicz should know. He's been featured on the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel and the Fox network for his shark research and diving expeditions. He's also chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Shark Research Institute, a United Nations–recognized group that seeks to preserve an animal that he says gets a bad rap from television shows and movies that associate blood and gore with sharks.
Most Brick residents may not have heard of Nagiewicz, but many influential policymakers, from noted conservationists to world leaders, know him well. What started as a group of friends tracking statistics on shark attacks turned into the Princeton-based Shark Research Institute, which has influenced shark conservation policies worldwide. And Nagiewicz, who specializes in diving expeditions and has run a dive boat out of Manasquan Inlet, has been at the forefront of a movement to educate the world on why sharks deserve to be preserved, not killed.
Despite the popularity of Shark Week and Steven Spielberg's 1975 hit movie, "Jaws," "nobody really loves sharks," Nagiewicz contends. "Everyone likes the black bears and polar bears and thinks they're all cute. But if you yell 'shark,' people just run for their lives."
The bloody scenes in Jaws which depict residents and tourists in a small New England town being swallowed by a Great White shark painted a virtual target on the back of every shark in the ocean, Nagiewicz said, one that has yet to fade 36 years later.
"People are killing them because they fear them, or they just want to prove they're hunters," Nagiewicz said. "From their viewpoint, they'd rather see them dead than alive, because then they can't bite."
But despite being one of the world's top predators, sharks haven't fared so well as of late. There has been an uptick in the number of sharks killed in recent years as shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy that legend holds provides those who consume it with strength and vitality, has grown in popularity worldwide. The Shark Research Institute believes up to 22,000 sharks are killed each week, just for their fins.
"The numbers are pretty staggering," said Nagiewicz. "You can understand fishing, but they're just killing the shark for the fin."
And about the legend of retaining a shark's strength after eating its fin?
"The reality is that sharks get cancer, some are weak, some die," said Nagiewicz.
The Shark Research Institute has lobbied internationally for more conservation laws to be put in place to protect sharks. Nagiewicz has personally honored the presidents of Palau and The Philippines for putting protection zones in place, and in the United States, has helped to get shark fin soup banned in Hawaii, Washington and Oregon, with California expected to enact a ban soon.
But despite international travel and nationwide lobbying efforts on behalf of a species we love to fear, Nagiewicz has happy memories of sharks here at the Jersey Shore. One of his best memories was running into a 3-foot-long Mako shark while diving a wreck off Bay Head.
"Then the mother showed up, and I figured it was a good time to leave," he said.
He's also spreading his love of adventure to his 14-year-old son, Travis, who will enter Brick Township High School next month. The pair swam with black-tipped reef sharks in the Turks and Caicos recently.
"He realized the sharks could swim between his legs and not bother him," Nagiewicz said.
"People are fascinated by the big predators of the planet, and sharks are the biggest predators, besides man, on the planet," Nagiewicz said. "Some of it is the result of the movie 'Jaws,' but even before that, people were fascinated with an animal that can strike at any time for any reason. Sharks are like dinosaurs, they've hardly changed."
For Nagiewicz, sharks are a species to be appreciated for more than just one week each summer, and for more reasons than television entertainment.
"Nature's balance is something that we just don't know enough about," Nagiewicz said. "You can't just take the predator out."