With the recent uptick of great white sharks off the Massachusetts coast – including one who chomped a swimmer’s leg last summer – it’s pretty clear beachgoers are going to find themselves face to face with the sharp-toothed fish a lot more.
Christopher Neff of the University of Sydney, Australia, and Dr. Robert Hueter, leader of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Fla., are proposing a new system of classification to keep better scientific track of shark encounters and educate the public to the animals’ real danger.
The term shark attack creates a “perception of a premeditated crime, lowering the public’s threshold for accepting shark bite incidents as random acts of nature. The narrative establishes villains and victims, cause and effect, perceptions of public risk, and a problem to be solved,” the authors say in the study published this week in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.
“Not all shark ‘attacks’ are created equal, and we certainly shouldn't call bites on kayaks and bites on people the same thing," says Neff, a doctoral candidate conducting the first study on policy responses to shark bites at the University of Sydney.
For example, in Florida (sometimes called the “Shark Attack Capital of the World”), only 11 fatal bites have been recorded in the last 129 years, a lower number than other places around the world. And a 2009 government report from New South Wales in Australia documented 200 shark attacks, but 38 involved no injuries to people.
Here is the suggested new classification: Shark sightings (when you see them from the beach); shark encounters (bumping into one in the water); Shark bites (bites by small or large sharks that result in minor to moderate injuries); and fatal shark bites.
“These new categories provide better information to the public so they can judge their levels of risk based on local shark activity,” Neff said. “There simply is no value in using ‘attack’ language. It is time to move past Jaws.”
In short, sharks get a bad rap. They aren’t all man-eaters. They really don’t go “rogue” as one researcher suggested in the 1950s to develop a taste for humans. The authors say nations in turn have turned to shark hunts and in some cases, naval depth charges, to kill sharks in the name of saving the public.
I once heard from someone who “survived” a shark attack that turned out to be little more than a small bite by a small shark on a heel. But changing the nomenclature is going to be tough, and not only because headline writers love “shark attack” headlines. Who doesn’t want to say they survived a shark attack?
(Photo credit: SHELLY NEGROTTI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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