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Don’t call them ‘shark attacks,’ scientists say

The disappearance of sharks threatens to upend marine ecosystems and critical sources of food, scientists say.
The disappearance of sharks threatens to upend marine ecosystems and critical sources of food, scientists say.Joe Romeiro/Discovery Plus

On the beaches of Western Australia, by California’s crashing waves, and in sight of Hawaii’s blue depths, “shark attacks” are slowly disappearing, at least as a phrase used by researchers and officials who have been rethinking how to describe the moments when sharks and humans meet.

Last week, two Australian states drew swift mockery when The Sydney Morning Herald reported that they were moving away from the phrase in favor of terms like “bites,” “incidents,” and “encounters.”

Shark scientists have long called for less sensational language, saying that they are not trying to police anyone’s speech. Rather, they said, they want to change the public’s perception about animals whose population has plummeted by 71 percent since 1970, largely from overfishing. The disappearance of sharks threatens to upend marine ecosystems and critical sources of food, they say.

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Officials in some US and Australian states were careful to say that they had chosen their language for precision and not because of political correctness or pressure from activists.

“I can understand the sort of pushback to what we’re talking about, as a shift to kind of comical euphemism,” said Catherine Macdonald, a marine conservation biologist and the director of the Field School, a research institute in South Florida. “But I think that some of the shifts being described are actually a push toward greater accuracy and detail.”

Macdonald and other scientists said that shark bites should be described as bites but that context matters. There are more than 500 species of shark — small and colossal, glowing and roaming — and people meet them swimming, fishing, surfing, and doing any number of other activities.

“There’s a real disconnect between the human imagination of shark attacks and the reality of it,” said Toby Daly-Engel, the director of the Florida Tech Shark Conservation Lab. “A lot of what’s called a shark attack in society is actually provoked by humans.”

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People step on small sharks, which turn around and snap. Divers — and, in at least one case, an Instagram model — have gotten too close, and sharks have reacted. Unprovoked bites sometimes take place in murky water, Daly-Engel said, as when a white shark mistakes a surfer for a seal.

But bites are extraordinarily rare, she said — globally, there are about 70 to 80 unprovoked bites a year, and about five deaths — and sharks usually flee after physical contact with a person.

“A ‘shark attack’ is a story of intent,” said Christopher Pepin-Neff, a lecturer in public policy at the University of Sydney who has studied human perceptions of sharks. “But sharks don’t know what people are. They don’t know when you’re in the boat. They don’t know what a propeller is. It’s not an attack.”

In Australia, the Queensland government offers guidance to minimize “your risk of a negative encounter with a shark.” Western Australia uses “bite” and “incident” in its alert system and sometimes “shark interaction,” usually when there is no bite.

Most unprovoked shark bites are reported in the United States, where the shift in language began in earnest within the past 10 years. For example, fish and wildlife officials in California have tracked injuries, deaths and “incidents” since about 2017 for cases where a shark touches people or their surfboard, kayak, or other item. In Hawaii, officials have used “human-shark encounters” for nearly a decade.

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A Hawaii government website notes that “dog bites” are called “dog attacks” in only extraordinary cases. Dan Dennison, a spokesman for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said that whenever he had been asked why a shark attacked someone, “My response is always, ‘Until we can interview the shark we have no idea.’ ”

One exception to the rebranding trend appears to be Florida, where the Fish and Wildlife Commission has a section on its website about “shark attacks.” A spokeswoman, Carly Jones, said that the commission “does not have involvement with this topic.”