Why Saying Shark “Attacks” Is Just Plain Wrong

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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Photo from Thinkstock


Veronique L.
Veronique L4 years ago

Very interesting thank you!

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

when you get into the ocean you are risking being bitten by the native wildlife. Not just sharks either. My brother was stung by a jellyfish. I am not sure why people get so worked up, if we sent kids to play in the middle of the jungle we would expect a spider bite or a wild animal "attack".. why are we so shocked when ocean life reacts the same way? Attacks fuel fear, like the killings in 1916, and we simply can't afford to kill sharks. They are key elements of the oceans biodiversity and eco system. They are DINOSAURS in their own right, history swimming powerfully in the depths.

Justin Byers
Justin Byers4 years ago

We kill more sharks in a year than sharks have killed people in general. 73 million sharks were killed last year over this crazy shark fin soup. A coconut kills more people in a year than shark attacks. We should be signing wavers every time we choose to swim in an ocean that belongs to sharks and other marine life. If we were slaughtering cats and dogs like we are sharks, there would be an outrage of supporters. I'm sure we will wipe out the pitbulls just like we are doing to sharks

Kate S.
Kate S4 years ago

Everything needs to eat... don't want to be attacked? Get out of the water when you hear the music

Valeria Jones
Valeria Jones4 years ago

when it gets tangled around your leg: Jellyfish ATTACK!

When you step on it in the water:Starfish ATTACK!

When you stub your toe on it at the beach: Seashell ATTACK!

Carole R.
Carole R4 years ago


Waltraud U.
Waltraud U4 years ago

humans attac is always right.

Lisa Windsor
Lisa W4 years ago

I think that when humans enter the oceans or any body of water, they are invading a habitat. They should respect it and realize that there may be some dangers. It is much more dangerous to drive a car. Sharks do not attack people to hurt them or kill them. It is either mistaken identity, or curiosity. It all depends on how people interperet the word attack. Get out your thesaurus...let's see, strike, foray...I don't know. Maybe you could state it "There was an incident involving a human and shark..."

Carrie Anne Brown

interesting article, thanks for sharing :)

Christine Jones
Christine J4 years ago

It's a tricky one. I live in Western Australia, the shark "attack" capital of the world, and grew up going to the beach regularly. My first reaction to the article was to think "PC gone mad again", but unfortunately even today some people do see sharks as rogue killers, out to chase down humans. We very recently had an awful incident here where some morons chased down a shark, hung it up on their boat, beat it and tortured it, laughing while videoing. This was supposedly revenge for a shark "attack". Of course, it wasn't the same shark, but as I said, these guys were morons. This might sound crazy but I think most of the problems with sharks is simply that they don't have hands; like puppies, if they want to investigate anything it goes straight into their mouths. Most of them get us confused with seals, especially when we wear black rubber wetsuits with flippers. Nearly all of them don't like the taste of people, and spit us out when they realize what we are. Unfortunately, some of them are so huge that by the time this happens the person is dead or seriously injured. I must add that I've nothing but sympathy for the injuries and fear experienced by people who have survived this experience.