Shark advocates and scientists in Australia are pushing for a rebranding of shark attacks to shark “interactions,” a move that would downplay the severity of shark bites.
In Queensland and New South Wales, officials announced that state communications will now use terms like “bites” or “negative encounter” instead of “attack.” At a shark symposium in May, a senior official said the change is based on social research, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
New South Wales officials have gradually stopped using the term “attack” in their annual reports. They say they have collaborated with Bite Club, a shark survivors’ support group, to tweak their language.
A spokeswoman told the Herald that the agency “generally refers to ‘incidents’ or ‘interactions’ in our formal shark reporting.”
Shark Advocates Explained Language Change at Symposium
The Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation hosted the May symposium. Researchers there discussed what they say is “alarmist” language surrounding sharks biting humans.
The University of Sydney’s Christopher Pepin-Neff later told the Herald that until the 1930s, shark encounters were referred to as “shark accidents.” Then along came Dr. Victor Coppleson, a prominent local surgeon, who started describing them as attacks, right around the time that shark nets began appearing on city beaches.
“Shark attack is a lie,” Pepin-Neff said. He pointed out that over a third of shark encounters result in no injury whatsoever, and others result in relatively minor bites.
Shark advocates believe that the use of the term “shark attacks” can stoke fears about public safety. Dr. Leonardo Guida, a shark researcher at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, told the Herald that “alarmist language” fuels misconceptions about sharks.
“It helps dispel inherent assumptions that sharks are ravenous, mindless man-eating monsters,” he said of the rebranding effort.
Not all of Australia has embraced the terminology change. But officials were pretty clear about their plans at the Noosa symposium.
“We sat up at the mention,” Lawrence Chlebeck, a marine campaigner with Humane Society International, later said. “I congratulated them for their change of terminology.”
Sharks Are Just Exploring, Researchers Say
It’s unusual for a human to be eaten by a shark, shark advocates say. In fact, shark bites may just be examples of sharks trying to figure out how to classify humans.
“Sharks don’t have hands. So, if they want to explore something, they mouth it,” Nathan Hart, an associate professor at Macquarie University, told the Herald. “Very rarely are humans consumed by sharks.”
Drone footage shows that sharks often swim close to surfers for long periods of time without attacking them. And Hart has worked with other researchers to try to explain why sharks do decide to attack humans. They are currently researching techniques to discourage attacks, such as putting lights on the underside of surfboards.
Hart explained that changing the official terminology may tamp down calls for culling a protected species. The shark population is declining worldwide due to over-fishing, pollution and climate change. And that is particularly true in Australia.
“The [last] thing we want is people killing a lot of sharks,” Hart said.