Shark ‘attacks’ should be re-named, study says

By Joanna Egan 4 February 2013
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Describing shark encounters as ‘attacks’ is misleading and outdated, researchers say.

TERMS USED TO DESCRIBE shark encounters need to be revised, a new study recommends.

An international research team examined global shark encounter data and discovered that the term ‘shark attack’ is widely used to describe almost all interactions between humans and sharks, even those that involve no physical contact and do not lead to injury.


The researchers determined that the term ‘shark attack’ is inaccurate, out-dated and misleading. In a paper published this week in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, they call for the widespread use of new classifications to describe different levels of human-shark interactions.

‘Shark attack’ term not accurate

“The data we reviewed shows that the term ‘shark attack’ is used broadly to include bites on boats and bites on people and it doesn’t distinguish between small sharks and large sharks, such as great whites,” lead researcher Dr Christopher Neff, from the University of Sydney, told Australian Geographic. “The term is misleading and there’s a responsibility for us to tell the public the truth.”

In their paper, Christopher and his research partner Dr Robert Hueter, head of the Mote Marine Laboratory’s Centre for Shark Research in the USA, propose four new terms to classify human-shark interactions:

– shark sightings (a shark is spotted swimming close to people)
– shark encounters (a shark makes physical contact with a person or an object holding a person, such as a surfboard or boat, but doesn’t bite)
– shark bites (a shark bites a person but no fatality occurs)
– fatal shark bites (a shark bites a person, causing injuries that lead to death)

The pair hopes these terms will be adopted by scientists, government officials and media reporters worldwide, and that the new classifications will provide a more accurate representation of shark behaviour.

Why sharks attack

“I think there are two benefits to this,” says Christopher. “The first is that it will provide beachgoers and water-users with more accurate information.” This will allow for better risk management and education about safety, Christopher adds.

“The second is that the term ‘attack’ assumes intent,” he continues. “We’ve seen a criminalisation of shark behaviour around the world and all of it is based on the assumption that the shark has a pre-mediated intent, and the use of attack language enforces that.”

Dr Leah Gibbs, a cultural geographer from the University of Wollongong, agrees. “The language we use to describe events is very important,” she says. “The phrase ‘shark attack’ is extremely loaded, and often inaccurate. It does a terrific job at creating a villain from an ancient and fascinating animal.”

Myth of the ‘rogue shark’

In their paper, Christopher and Robert break down the myth of the ‘rogue shark’, which first became popular in the 1930s and was reinforced by the 1975 film Jaws. It implies that certain ‘man-eating’ sharks develop a liking for human flesh.

“There is no scientific evidence to say we’re on the menu,” says Chrisopher. “Sharks swim away most of the time and not all shark attacks are the same.”

Ryan Kempster, a shark biologist at the University of Western Australia, agrees. “By improving the public perception of sharks through more accurate reporting, we will undoubtedly see a reduction in the fear associated with sharks and, thus, less people standing in the way of well needed conservation efforts aimed at these economically and ecologically important animals,” Ryan says.