Trump told Stormy Daniels he wants all sharks to die. Here’s why that’s a bad idea

They do look scary.
They do look scary.
Image: AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam
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Donald Trump loves to hate-watch TV. And apparently, this habit extends beyond CNN and Morning Joe to another object of his loathing: sharks.

Details of this character quirk come to us courtesy of Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who claims to have had an extramarital affair with the US president. When she met Trump at his private cottage in the back of the Beverly Hills Hotel in 2007, Daniels recounted in her “60 Minutes” interview last night, she found Trump deep in the sway of the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” Trump then compelled Daniels to watch a shark attack documentary with him, she says.

The theme has come up before, notes the Washington Post (paywall). “He is obsessed with sharks. Terrified of sharks,” Daniels informed In Touch Weekly in a 2011 interview. “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.’”

Of course we can’t really know if Trump is gripped by a pathological contempt for sharks, or if he truly wishes them ill. This is just Daniels’ word. It wouldn’t exactly be surprising; big sharks terrify many people (video), even though they kill a mere six people a year, on average. But it does raise an interesting question. What would happen if all sharks died?

When a species is knocked out of an ocean ecosystem, unexpected things are bound to happen. This is because marine food webs are incredibly complex. The shark part of the equation, however, is relatively straightforward—and vitally important.

Most animals in marine food webs have two main roles: the eater and the eaten. Not so for the large sharks that Trump reportedly reviles. These powerful creatures eat other animals, but hardly anything eats them. Known as apex predators, sharks sit atop the food web, shaping the structure and interactions of marine communities by both feasting smaller animals and frightening them into behaving a certain way. Kill off apex predators, and their erstwhile prey explodes in number—and, consequently, the smaller animals and plants that the prey eats disappear.

Scientists are only beginning to understand how these effects play out in the wild. Perhaps the most famous example involves the spectacular crash of North Carolina’s bay scallop fishery in the 1990s, believed to be an indirect consequence of a reduction in the large shark population.

The tiger sharks, hammerheads and other big sharks that roam that patch of the Atlantic don’t trifle with scallops, but cownose rays enjoy eating them—and those rays, in turn, are potential dinner for big sharks. Thanks to the shark-fin trade and accidental catches, the shark population plummeted, allowing cownose ray numbers to surge, according to a 2007 study in Science (pdf).

The cause-and-effect here is unusually clear (though debated by some scientists): Despite heavy fishing of sharks in many ecosystems, it’s been hard to assess the direct impact of dwindling shark populations due in part to parallel phenomena—like, say, overfishing of tuna, another apex predator.

And it’s not just through top-down predation that big sharks keep order in the ocean. Apart from controlling the numbers of the creatures they actually eat, scientists think that even the simple presence of apex predators affects ecosystems. When sharks are cruising a reef, their potential prey skulks around to avoid them, limiting its opportunities to feed. Take away the sharks, and their prey can feed more aggressively—or even start eating entirely different things.

This all makes the effect of a hypothetical sudden extinction of apex-predator sharks impossible to predict with any precision. Scallop scarcity would likely be among the least of the concerns.

In any case it’s reason to wish for sharks’ continued survival—no matter how scary they look on big-screen TV in a Beverly Hills bungalow.