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March 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 39, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Don’t Call Them “Shark Attacks” Anymore

from the March, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Now, Christopher Neff of the University of Sydney in Australia and Robert Hueter, leader of Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, FL propose a new system of classification to support more accurate scientific reporting about "shark interactions."Their study, published in January in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, analyzed shark statistics worldwide and found the term "shark attack" misleading in many cases. For instance, a 2009 government report from New South Wales, Australia, documented 200 shark attacks, but 38 of those involved no injuries to people. In Florida, often called the "Shark Attack Capital of the World," only 11 fatal bites have been recorded over the past 129 years, a lower number than several other locations in the world.

"Not all shark 'attacks' are created equal, and we certainly shouldn't call bites on kayaks and bites on people the same thing," says Neff. Hueter adds: "Nor should we equate the single bite of a two-foot shark on a surfer's toe with the fatal bite of a 15-foot shark on a swimmer, but that's how the current language treats these incidents."

To support more accurate reporting and discussion of shark incidents, the Neff-Hueter study groups them into four categories based on outcomes that can be clearly documented. These include:

Shark sightings: Sightings of sharks in the water near people but with no physical contact.

Shark encounters: No bite takes place and no humans are injured, but physical contact occurs with a person (say a shark bumps a swimmer and its rough skin causes a minor abrasion) or with an inanimate object, such as a surfboard or kayak

Shark bites: Bites by sharks that result in minor to moderate injuries.

Fatal shark bites: One or more bites causing fatal injuries. The authors caution against using the term "shark attack" unless the motivation and intent of the shark are clearly established by experts, which is rarely possible.

"These new categories provide better information to the public so they can judge risk levels based on local shark activity," Neff said. "If 'sightings' of sharks are increasing, or if 'encounters' with kayaks are decreasing, these are important pieces of information. There simply is no value in using 'attack' language. It's time to move past Jaws."

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