One of the first recorded fatal shark encounters in the New World took place in 1642 in New York. As trumpeter Anthony Van Corlaer attempted to forge the Hudson River by himself, he was dragged deep into the depths of the river by what is now presumed to have been a bull shark. A witness described watching "the devil, in the shape of a huge fish, seize the sturdy Anthony by the leg and drag him beneath the waves".
Fast forward almost four centuries, and the "devil" narrative surrounding sharks hasn't changed much. News headlines promise sensational tales of vicious shark attacks, and brave stories of triumph and valiance emerge as the shark attack victims recover from their injuries.
Why are we so attached to the notion that sharks "attack"? Dr. Rebecca A. Adelman, Assistant Professor of Media & Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, believes that such language helps humans rationalize -- and perhaps minimize -- their role in shark bites:
"It neatly erases any kind of human culpability for the shark bite while underscoring the notion that humans [...] ought to be able to roam freely and safely anywhere on the planet, regardless of what other creatures might have preceded them there by millions of years," she explains.
"Yet it also makes a kind of sense out of the event of a shark biting a hapless child, swimmer, surfer, or fisherman by attributing a kind of malevolent agency to the offending creature. It deflects the question of whether the human might have made a mistake by being in that part of the ocean at that time (or might have made a faulty calculation about the risk associated with their actions), but also provides a defense against the terrifying idea that bad things just happen."
Dissatisfied with the lexicon of sensationalism, a group of marine biologists is working to change the way that we talk about sharks. The American Elasmobranch Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study of sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras, is calling on news outlets to retire the phrase "shark attack" in favor of more accurate, less sensational phrases that realistically represent the types of encounters between sharks and humans.
"The phrase 'shark attack' is inflammatory and inaccurate. It conjures up images of Jaws, of a large monster intentionally and maliciously targeting humans. In reality, shark bites are incredibly rare. They're the result of mistaken identity, and most cause only minor injuries," explains David Shiffman, a PhD candidate at the University of Miami's Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, who is heavily involved in the campaign.
He's right -- in reality, shark attacks are statistically uncommon. According to Florida's International Shark Attack File, toppling vending machines killed more people between 1977 and 1995 than sharks did. Nonetheless, narratives of nonstop horror and fear persist unabated in the media.
Prominent shark researchers Christopher Neff and Robert Heuter, both members of the American Elasmobranch Society, published a 2013 study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences that investigates media usage of the phrase "shark attack". They found that the phrase "shark attack" was used to describe a variety of interactions between humans and sharks, some of which didn't even involve physical contact between humans and sharks:
Bites from non-threatening sharks like the wobbegong, which account for 5.5 % of all shark "attacks" in Australia since 1900, are not distinguished from more serious bites by other species of sharks when all events are labeled shark "attacks." The term "shark attack" can even include events where there is no physical contact with a person. For example, sharks simply making contact with kayaks may be counted and reported as "attacks". Clearly, when the phrase "shark attack" is used, the public is led to conclude that this must involve direct contact resulting in major injuries to the "victim."
In their paper, Neff and Heuter propose an alternative system of classifying shark interactions:
- Shark sightings: Sightings of sharks by humans in which no physical contact actually takes place
- Shark encounters: Physical contact between a human and a shark in which no injury is sustained
- Shark bites: Biting incidents in which a human incurs "minor to moderate" injuries from a shark
- Fatal shark bites: A human-shark interaction that results in a fatal outcome
Neff and Heuter concede that "shark attacks" do occur -- but they encourage the use of the phrase only when "the motivation and intent of the shark are clearly established by experts".
Why Does it Matter?
The rhetoric used against sharks can have a negative impact on conservation efforts. "Sharks are ecologically important wild animals. We should respect them, and we should protect them," explains Shiffman. "Many species are dangerously overfished. 24% of species of sharks and their relatives are IUCN Red List Threatened with extinction. And it's harder to get people to care and want to help when they're afraid."
What do you think? Is it fair to use the phrase "shark attack", or should the media look for alternative ways to describe interactions between sharks and humans? Let us know in the comments below.