Most shark attacks are not “attacks” at all, so say Christopher Neff, a social scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia, and Robert Hueter, a marine biologist heading the shark research center at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, in a new study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. Noting that “few phrases in the Western world … evoke as much emotion or as powerful an image as the words ‘shark’ and ‘attack,’” Neff and Hueter argue that we need to change the scary and sensationalistic terminology we use about sharks.
It is not only that it is inaccurate to say that most encounters between sharks and humans are “attacks” that result in injury and even death. What are really “random acts of nature” when a human encounters a wild animal in its native habitat, the ocean, are wrongly portrayed as premediated “crimes.” Talk of “rogue” sharks is really based on fictional portrayals in popular movies such as Jaws rather than on studies of actual shark behavior.
Shark “Attacks”: A Highly Misleading Term
Florida is routinely called the “Shark Attack Capital of the World.” The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) lists 637 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark “attacks” in its waters between 1882 and 2012. But, as Neff and Hueter point out, fatalities occurred in eleven out of those many cases, a total of only 2 percent. 98 percent of incidents involving sharks were non-fatal and would more properly be termed “shark encounters,” “shark bites” or even “shark sightings.”
In reevaluating 200 shark “attacks” between 1900 and 2009 in New South Wales in Australia, Neff and Hueter found that 38 resulted in no injury. As some of the “attacks” were from “relatively benign species, the wobbegong shark (Orectolobus spp.), they recategorized these as shark “bites.”
One reason for rising numbers of human and shark encounters (and reports of these in the media) is indeed because of “increases in the number of recreational water users choosing to surf, kayak, body board, and paddle board.”
More Accurate Ways To Talk About Shark “Attacks”
Neff and Hueter propose that media outlets adopt new labels that can more “properly inform the public of the overwhelming number of human–shark interactions that are not life threatening.” “Shark sightings” occur when the animals are near but no contact actually takes place; “shark encounters” are a “close call with a swimmer or a surfboard” involving no injury; “shark bites” occur when only “a single bite and only minor injury” result. The term “fatal shark bites” can be used for the small percentage of incidents that end in death.
As Neff and Hueter write, “the time has come to codify our contemporary understanding of human–shark interactions into new categories that move beyond the ‘Jaws effect’ and acknowledge the public value of a balanced, outcome-based approach.” The routine portrayal of sharks as “man-eating” creatures who go out of their way to “attack” humans is driving sharks “into extinction,” AFP says. Talking about shark “attacks” may be great for headlines but it is “misplaced scientifically and misleading to the public” and keeps untrue, and unfair, stereotypes about sharks alive. At a time when sharks face extinction, such “inflammatory” misrepresentations are only endanger their already fragile existence more.
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