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PhD Studies The Politics Of Shark Attacks; 'We Need To Update The Rogue Shark Theory'

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SYDNEY, Australia -- In July 1916, during a summer heatwave, a series of shark attacks along the coast of New Jersey left four people dead and another seriously injured. The attacks, over a 12-day period, caused widespread panic, and as newspapers shocked their readers with graphic accounts of the incidents, the vicious man-eating shark soon became part of American folklore.

Almost sixty years later author Peter Benchley revived the theme of the rogue great white shark in his book Jaws, which was turned into a memorably scary blockbuster movie by Steven Spielberg.

In Australia the surgeon and Sydney graduate Sir Victor Coppleson wrote a book in 1958, Shark Attack, which also spread the idea of rogue sharks. Coppleson said the pattern and frequency of attacks suggested the likelihood of a single shark ignoring its natural prey and acquiring a taste for human flesh.

Today, research indicates that the ratio of shark attacks is on the increase, with more swimmers than ever before in the water. In the league table of shark attacks the USA leads the world, followed by Australia and South Africa.

But Christopher Neff, who worked as a lobbyist and congressional staffer during eight years in Washington, is seeking to challenge Coppleson's rogue shark theory, arguing that sharks do not set out to attack or eat people.

He is studying for a PhD at the University of Sydney, investigating how public policy and the media frame shark attacks and by doing so, he is the first PhD student in the world to focus on the politics of shark attacks.

Raised in a small town in Connecticut, New England, he had a childhood interest in sharks. In third grade, he already had an 11-foot long cardboard cut-out of a great white shark hanging in his room and loved reading books on sharks. "The fascination was there early on," he says. "What wasn't there was any political analysis to go with it."

Neff's interest in politics also developed at an early age and he was deeply influenced by his mentor former, Senator Robert Kennedy, and his grandmother, who was in the Connecticut local Republican Party.

He went to St John's High School in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was in the school's Model United Nations Team for three years, leading a successful team of around 50 members.

He went on to study at James Madison University in Virginia and served as senior class president in 1999, graduating with a BA in Political Science.

At 23, he became an aide-de-camp of Senator John Warner of Virginia and also volunteered for Senator John McCain's campaign, helping out at the national headquarters in Virginia. Then he changed course and worked for the Log Cabin Republicans organisation briefly before becoming junior staffer to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada.

In 2002, he became the first lobbyist in the US on behalf of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, campaigning for the repeal of the 'Dont Ask, Dont Tell' legislation which requires the discharge of openly gay military personnel.

He believes getting a higher degree and studying overseas are important. "I think every American should try to get a degree in a foreign country," he says. "You get twice the experience if you go abroad."

He completed a Master's in Public Policy with Honours in November 2007 at the University of Sydney. Studying for that degree, he worked on carnivore conservation and encountered the riddle that is the predator policy paradox. "The question of how we protect species that we need protecting from is fascinating," he says.

His master's studies included a focus on African lions and the way South Africa educates the public on cohabitation with predatory creatures. That led him to ask whether the same principles could be applied to sharks, and became the basis for his PhD research. He started in March lastyear and will take three and a half years to complete his degree.

He adds: "The central question is how governments develop public policies to protect endangered sharks when the sharks may harm the public.

"Shark attacks are very scary, low probability events that the government has to try and protect people from, both in terms of public safety and in terms of managing the public's perception of risk. If there is a loss in public confidence, this becomes a safety issue as well."

He is keen to dispel the idea that sharks deliberately eat people. "I don't believe that sharks attack and kill people in the way that I attack the buffet at Star City. Swimmers who enter their territory are in the way, not on the menu.

"Sharks dont have hands and they are wild, so they move things with their mouths."

He regards Coppleson's theory as outdated and alarmist. "There was a straight line from the New Jersey attacks of 1916 to Coppleson's theory, but there is new data now and we need to update the rogue shark theory," he says.

He is currently studying shark-bite incidents and the impact of shark conservation policy in the USA, Australia and South Africa. Much of his work involves content analysis of newspaper reports on shark attacks.

He says there are subtle differences in the shark control policies of the three countries. "In the US, there are human control measures and they warn swimmers that they are taking a risk, that you can get killed by a lot of things in the ocean.

"In South Africa, there is a different policy implementation where they set up shark spotters on coastal cliffs and give walkie-talkies to fishermen to let people know there are sharks in the water.

"In Australia, there is another narrative. A new positive Shark Smart campaign has been launched recently but nets on beaches have been renewed. This netting creates a unique problem as it reinforces a stigma against sharks and makes conservation efforts to protect great white sharks more difficult."

Neff's study is the first social sciences PhD on shark attacks and is a self-funded project. It is supervised by Dr Betsi Beem from the Department of Government and International Relations.

"I am really excited to do this PhD because I think it will help people understand sharks better and advance the concept of carnivore conservation," he says.

He has been offered a sponsorship to conduct a month-long field research project at the Shark Centre in South Africa next June, in partnership with the University of Cape Town and the Save Our Seas Foundation in Cape Town. He is also working with the Sydney Aquarium Conservation Fund.

"Solving this riddle is a collaborative effort which needs everyone's support," he says.

This article is from the forthcoming USA and Canada edition of the University of Sydney World magazine.

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