Movie depictions of bloodthirsty sharks stalking and eating swimmers have given the ocean predators a bad rap, researchers say.
Now some Australian officials have opted to stop using the word “attack” as a blanket description of all interactions between sharks and people. Instead, they’re now calling them “incidents,” “bites” or, in some cases, “a negative encounter.”
But not everyone who has encountered a shark is pleased.
“You can’t sanitize it too much,” Dave Pearson, a spokesman for a survivors’ group called Bite Club, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Attendees at a May shark symposium were told the government of Queensland – one of six states in Australia – was for the first time replacing the word “attack” as a catchall to describe every shark-human interaction, Leonardo Guida, a shark biologist with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, told The Washington Post. The state of New South Wales has also started describing what it once called “attacks” as “incidents” or “interactions.”
And researchers say the changes are long overdue. For years, they’ve argued that using “attack” to describe every case is inaccurate and can lead to emotional, knee-jerk reactions not rooted in science.
Nearly 40 percent of human-shark incidents involve no injuries at all; often, they’re merely sightings, Chris Pepin-Neff, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, told The Post. Even when sharks do bite someone, he said, they are usually exploring.
They’re not the bloodthirsty monsters trying to gorge themselves on human flesh, he added.
“Sharks are very curious animals,” Guida said. They “tend to have exploratory bites . . . and unfortunately – and sometimes tragically – us humans are quite soft.”
It’s rare for sharks to bite people, and a shark trying to eat a person is almost unheard of, Pepin-Neff said. He said he could think of five times that has happened in the past half-century.
“The whole arena of shark-bite politics is manipulative,” Pepin-Neff said. “Something terrible happens, and politicians make it worse by using hyped-up . . . language that describes sharks as movie monsters.”
That can lead to policies that don’t solve problems – and can hurt sharks, which are becoming increasingly endangered, Pepin-Neff said. A recent study determined the number of sharks found in the open oceans plunged by more than 70 percent in the past 50 years, and three-quarters of species are threatened with extinction, according to BBC News, mainly because of commercial fishing.
“Hyped-up” language wasn’t always the norm, Pepin-Neff said. Run-ins between people and the 400 million-year-old animals used to be called “shark accidents,” until a prominent surgeon in Sydney received correspondence from the U.S. urging him to warn the public of the possibility of “shark rabies.” The doctor then wrote a 1933 article concluding the “evidence that sharks will attack man is complete,” according to a study Pepin-Neff co-wrote in 2013 that was published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.
The Sydney surgeon’s 1933 article helped solidify the impression that, when sharks bite people, it’s a “man-eating attack.” The idea held for decades – including after the 1975 Steven Spielberg blockbuster movie “Jaws” came out.
The message to the public was clear, Pepin-Neff said in the study: Sharks wanted to eat humans.
But none of it was true, he said, and while exaggerations in Hollywood movies are expected, government officials were perpetuating the myth.
“You’ve got to tell people the truth; they’re being misled,” Pepin-Neff told The Post for a 2013 article about the study. Though at the time, he said he thought it was unlikely people would stop describing encounters as attacks.
Eight years later, some in Australia have changed that.
But Pearson, the Bite Club spokesman, told The Post that while he understands the need for more precise language, sometimes you have to call something what it is.
And in the case of many shark-human encounters, that is sometimes an attack.
“If we play down the severity of someone’s experience, it can disregard their trauma,” he said.