CHATHAM — The president of the United States doesn’t like sharks. As it turns out, that’s working out nicely for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.
The nonprofit group has received a surprise surge in donations from Trump critics who are apparently seeking to make a political statement while also supporting white shark conservation and education.
In 2013, Trump received a Twitter message challenging him to remove shark fin soup from the menu at Trump casinos.
“Sorry folks, I’m just not a fan of sharks – and don’t worry, they will be around long after we are gone,” Trump replied in a Tweet. “Sharks are last on my list – other than perhaps the losers and haters of the World!” he added a few minutes later.
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy has a high profile on social media, and Executive Director Cynthia Wigren spotted a post by one individual who had made many posts about the president, sharing a link to the Conservancy website.
“He recommended that people contribute to organizations that are making a difference,” including shark conservation sites, Wigren said. “When I saw that post, I thought, that’s kind of interesting,” she said. “Then, donations started to come in.”
Using the Conservancy’s online donation form, people started making contributions, using the “given in honor of” field to make comments referencing the president’s dislike of sharks.
For Wigren, the gifts came as a complete surprise. She said she was unaware of the president’s views on sharks until the donations started rolling in. In all, about $6,000 in contributions were received.
“It’s definitely significant, at a slow time of the year” between fundraising campaigns, she said. “It has been a definite benefit to the Conservancy and other organizations that are doing shark research or shark conservancy,” she added. Even if some of the gifts were meant chiefly as a political barb, it’s a chance for advocates to get new people hooked on white shark conservation.
“Most of them are new donors, and literally from all over the country,” and also from overseas, Wigren said.
The story took a new turn when one anonymous donor gave $2,500 for the rights to name a shark, initially proposing to name it Donald Trump. There was “a great back-and-forth” on social media before the donor settled on a name for his shark: “Mueller.”
News that a donor was naming a shark after Robert Mueller, head of the Special Counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, caused the story to spread around the world.
The shark to bear that name has not yet been tagged. Once that happens, the anonymous donor will have the chance to see the shark’s photo, and shark fans will be able to track the animal on the Conservancy’s website and through its Sharktivity smartphone app.
“Other than posting the Mueller story, we haven’t done any marketing,” Wigren said. The nonprofit group has taken no steps to leverage the political debate to get more donations. “It just happened,” she said. In fact, when the comments on the Conservancy’s Facebook page have become too toothy, Wigren has had to remove them. “This is a little bit more of a hot zone” on social media than they normally occupy, she added.
While it is perhaps best known for its support of a landmark five-year shark population study off Cape Cod, which will enter its final year this summer, the Conservancy operates an active public education program. The group sponsors shark education in the schools and encourages girls to become excited in science, technology, engineering and math through its “Gills Club.” Wigren works closely with beach managers around Cape Cod to coordinate public safety efforts like a shark spotting network and informational signs at bathing beaches.
Asked if she has a message for the president about his dislike of sharks, Wigren wouldn’t rise to the bait.
“It’s really about education,” she said. Teaching people that white sharks are predators that play an important role in the ecosystem can sometimes change their attitudes, she said. “The more you know, hopefully, the less you fear,” Wigren said.
While the surge in donations appears to have eased up, there’s still an opportunity for people to take part. After all, Wigren quipped, there’s still a chance to snap up the shark name “Donald Trump.”