The man-eater label: Shark attack or a shark encounter?

Sharks have an image problem. It’s the way they look really….and what about all the attacks we seem to hear about during summer?

Or just maybe…this image problem is rooted in what we call sharks, you know, man-eater, or our lack of understanding of the important role that sharks play in the ocean ecosystem.

How about our method of labeling and categorizing human contact with sharks?  The media reporting what really was a shark encounter as an attack?

Image of Shortfin-Mako-Shark from NOAA Gallery (Isurus oxyrinchus)

A report by Christopher Neff (University of Sydney) and Robert Hueter (Center for Shark Research, Sarasota, Florida) proposes moving away from “shark attack” labels and a new way to categorize human-shark interactions. The proposed categories are:

  1. Shark sightings: Sightings of sharks in the water in proximity to people. No physical human–shark contact takes place.
  2. Shark encounters: Human-shark interactions in which physical contact occurs between a shark and a person, or an inanimate object holding that person, and no injury takes place. For example, shark bites on surfboards, kayaks, and boats would be classified under this label. In some cases, this might include close calls; a shark physically “bumping” a swimmer without biting would be labeled a shark encounter, not a shark attack…
  3. Shark bites: Incidents where sharks bite people resulting in minor to moderate injuries. Small or large sharks might be involved, but typically, a single, nonfatal bite occurs. If more than one bite occurs, injuries might be serious. Under this category, the term “shark attack” should never be used unless the motivation and intent of the animal—such as predation or defense—are clearly established by qualified experts. Since that is rarely the case, these incidents should be treated as cases of shark “bites” rather than shark “attacks.”
  4. Fatal shark bites: Human–shark conflicts in which serious injuries take place as a result of one or more bites on a person, causing a significant loss of blood and/or body tissue and a fatal outcome.  Read more here…

Until recently,  I would not have put much thought on shark encounter nomenclature.  But many shark species are in trouble and shark populations devastated due to modern fishing methods and an elevated demand for shark meat, fins and cartilage.

I am less fearful of sharks now, compared to 1 year ago.  During my post on the 4,000 lb shark tagged in 1990′s off Santa Cruz county caught in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, I learned the important role that sharks play in our ocean ecosystem.

Right now, 50 of the 307 shark species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.  Yet only the white, whale and basking sharks are protected.

Mano, Galapagos Shark image from NOAA website (Carcharhinus galapagensis)

A better understanding and image boost for sharks — starting with proper labeling of human-shark encounters — will help to protect these ancient creatures, and hopefully stop the alarming decline in their population, and the further imbalance of our ocean ecosystem.

The best thing to do about our fears — especially irrational fear — is to learn the facts.  After all, facts and our knowledge drives our actions!

Do you think this change in reporting human-shark encounters will help?

Related links:

Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences: Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark “attack”: a proposal for reclassifying human–shark interactions

Lolako’s article: Fatalities from shark attacks vs. being struck by lightning:

Lolako’s article: 4,000 lb shark tagged in 1990′s off Santa Cruz county caught in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez

Oceana.org – Sharks Overview

Pelagic.org – The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation

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Now that you are here, I would love to know what you think...comments are always appreciated.