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Bite Back: New Study Calls For Society To Change The Way We Refer To Shark Behavior; No 'Attacks'

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SARASOTA, Florida -- The term "shark attack" is typically used by the media, government officials, researchers and the public to describe almost any kind of human-shark interaction — even those where no contact or injury occurs between humans and sharks.

Now, Christopher Neff of the University of Sydney, Australia, and Dr. Robert Hueter, leader of Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Fla. — the only Congressionally designated national research center in the U.S. focused on sharks — propose a new system of classification to support more accurate scientific reporting about shark interactions, along with more accurate public discussion about shark risk to swimmers and divers.

The international study, published this week in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, is titled, "Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark 'attack': a proposal for reclassifying human–shark interactions." A free download of the article is available at:

In the study, the authors analyzed shark statistics from around the world 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 "because of the number of reported shark attacks, only 11 fatal bites have been recorded over the past 129 years — a lower number than several other locations in the world, and vastly lower than deaths from other types of natural events such as drowning or lightning.

"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, a doctoral candidate conducting the first study on policy responses to shark bites at the University of Sydney.

Dr. Hueter adds: "Nor should we equate the single bite of a 2-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, rather than speculation over what the sharks' motives and intentions were. These include:

Shark sightings: Sightings of sharks in the water in proximity to people with no physical contact.

Shark encounters: No bite takes place and no humans are injured, but physical contact occurs with a person or an inanimate object holding a person, such as a surfboard or boat. A shark might also bump a swimmer and its rough skin might cause a minor abrasion.

Shark bites: Bites by small or large 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 their levels of risk 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 is time to move past Jaws."

"Our contemporary scientific understanding of sharks paints a very different picture than that current public discourse and even early research," says Hueter, who is known worldwide for his expertise in shark biology, behavior and ecology. "Few sharks look like the large great whites you might see on the movie screen; of about 500 shark species on earth, most grow to less than 3 feet long. In addition, most shark species rarely, if ever, come into contact with humans. When they do, serious bites are the extremely rare exception rather than the rule."

Despite these facts, the term "shark attack" has dominated the language due to outdated historical perceptions of sharks, the researchers say.

Sharks were labeled "man-eaters" two centuries ago by scientists who had a limited understanding of shark behavior and biology, and a researcher in the 1950s wrongly suggested sharks could go"rogue," developing a taste for human flesh.

These concepts inflamed public concern and resulting government responses. Multiple nations have used shark hunts and intensive commercial fishing targeting sharks — and even deployed naval depth charges — to kill supposed "rogue" sharks and protect the public.

Popular culture — especially the novel and film Jaws in the 1970s — has strengthened rogue shark legends. News media reports also have contributed to misperceptions of human-shark interactions. The current study reviewed Associated Press articles in Florida during 2001 — known as the "Summer of the Shark" because of shark incidents ranging from minor to severe — and found that 79 percent of these stories used "attack" in the headline, even in the case of non-serious injuries.

Indiscriminate use of the term shark attack"can create a perception of a premeditated crime, lowering the public's threshold for accepting shark bite incidents as random acts of nature. The narrative establishes villains and victims, cause and effect, perceptions of public risk, and a problem to be solved," the authors say in the study.

In contrast, the Neff-Hueter naming system would provide an accurate and balanced way to describe shark risks, significantly adjusting reported statistics, the authors say:

In the government report from New South Wales, Australia, the new naming system would reclassify 200 shark "attacks" between 1900 and 2009 as: 56 fatal shark bites, 106 shark bites, 37 shark encounters and 1 shark sighting.

In Florida, the 637 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark "attacks" since 1882 would be reclassified as 11 fatal bites and 626 other interactions including bites, encounters, and a small fraction of sightings. (Shark incident data from the International Shark Attack File.)

"When public discussion centers on the idea that sharks are out there attacking humans, it doesn't reflect the reality of what we have learned over the past 40 years about shark behavior and biology —sharks are not man-eaters, and in fact, many shark species are threatened by humans who overfish them. Using the 'attack' language really hinders public discourse about the need to protect shark species, especially those vulnerable to depletion or even extinction," says Dr. Hueter.

The authors write: "In short, this is a call to scientists, public officials, and the media to reconsider their discourse on the subject of sharks and to improve the accuracy of information provided to the public."

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of, its staff or its advertisers.

Reader Comments

30 people have commented so far. cloud add your comment

In all my years of dealing with bogus shark claims and misdirection on the part of shark conservationists and tourism interests, I can say with absolute confidence that I have NEVER heard such a bogus pile of garbage as this in my life! I wouldn't even know where to start taking this apart, intellectually, it's so laughingly absurd from beginning to end. The very IDEA that we have to know the MOTIVE of an attack to be able to classify or call it an attack is so ludicrous and offensive, I almost think this is a Joke - it CAN'T be a serious news story! PLEASE... someone wake me from this bizarre dream I'm having!
   comment# 1   - Kevin Harris · Oak Park, CA USA · Jan 29, 2013 @ 9:03pm

Finally a good idea how to handle interactions of sharks and humans. Maybe one should also consider not to show a great white every time when someone was bitten..
   comment# 2   - michael · austria · Jan 30, 2013 @ 12:02am

What!? Are you stupid? By reclassifying such crap all it will hinder is public exposure to sharks, be that in the water or more so in the media, which in effect will lessen the fear of sharks amongst the public. Look at how stupid half of the worlds population is to begin with, making those fear sharks less or see them as less of a threat will lead to them getting killed by one if they aren't careful. It's like saying to someone, go to africa and pet a lion because they don't always kill people.
   comment# 3   - Nick H · Teesside, UK · Jan 30, 2013 @ 2:06am

Hi Kevin, You have to remember Neff gets grants from Save our Seas to come up with this stuff. I think this years grants are comming up for renewal soon. He got $20,000.00 last year and probably wants more this year. As you know anything that has to do with shark research is based on funding, here is another example. He just wants more money this year. Al
   comment# 4   - Al · Fort Lauderdale, Florida · Jan 30, 2013 @ 6:34am

It is about time as we know sharks do not plan to attack humans as humans do on each other. Sharks swim with fish and see them as their food source, remember sharks don't have hands use their mouths, if you are going to swim where there are Great Whites well you got to be carefull, mistaken identity thinks we are seals, people just need to be more educated and the media needs to play there part, with the millions of people who swim in the sea everyday and amount of humans that are bitten its a far cry from all the people in the world been killed in war,murder,cars,bees, and so on, SHARK BITE
   comment# 5   - John miller · South Africa · Jan 30, 2013 @ 7:15am

Take a shark to lunch. Er, you are lunch!
   comment# 6   - Jimbo · USA · Jan 30, 2013 @ 4:34pm

I've often thought it rediculous to label every minor incident with a shark, an "attack." Certainly if a shark merely bit my toe in curiosity -(which most shark bites are), I would not want it reported as an "attack." --- But if a shark bites me, then returns to finish me off, then sure I have been fatally attacked! Call it how it is, that's all I'm saying.
   comment# 7   - AL · Florida, USA · Jan 30, 2013 @ 6:00pm

Huh? You mean a shark can bite without attacking me? What will you classify it as, a "love nibble"?
   comment# 8   - Huh · San Francisco, California · Jan 30, 2013 @ 6:33pm

Humans are much more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to humans. Sharks are my favorite animal and get a bad rap. My friends gave me the name "sharkb8" years ago because they say I will be eaten while diving. If I am then I am nut it wont be the sharks fault. If you don't want to risk getting bitten just stay out of their living room!
   comment# 9   - sharkb8 · Oak Island,USA · Jan 30, 2013 @ 7:18pm

this article is alot of shuck an jive. i can see more break downs but make it shark bite, or no bite just a meeting. we have rattle snakes in tn. mess with one yea get bit. sharks bite people so let the truth be known.
   comment# 10   - dug haul · decatur, tn. usa · Jan 30, 2013 @ 7:32pm

On the one hand this smacks of redefining terms in order to control the debate, an old but effective tactic by certain political groups with an axe to grind. On the other hand, after 20 plus years of surfing and many shark encounters I have to agree with some of their points: for example, I literally can't remember all the sharks I've encountered -- make that sighted, to use the definitions proposed above -- but the vast majority of said sharks, even the big ones, were just swimming by. I have experienced some pretty aggressive behavior, but I've never been bitten (though one small six footer tried, a hard kick to the nose and he left quickly.) In short, seeing a shark isn't really a big deal, and if sightings are being reported as attacks that isn't reality, and when we look for news reality is what we need (but seldom get, unfortunately.) I can go with the proposal above, especially in the interest of more accurate reporting and science, provided that the last category -- the fatal one -- IS listed as an attack, which it certainly is, regardless of intent.
   comment# 11   - Chris · South Texas, USA · Jan 30, 2013 @ 8:40pm

I love the ocean and have bumped into the occasional shark in my time. Seems to me that a slightly more nuanced way of talking about these encounters can only be helpful. But people lover to hear the shocking stories so when the media gets ahold of a shark story they tend to exaggerate the danger to improve their ratings; what one might call a media attack.
   comment# 12   - Bzart · Santa Barbara, USA · Jan 30, 2013 @ 9:13pm

Really "shuck an jive"? I see someone has been watching Palin on Fox. I agree. Another way to come up with grant money
   comment# 13   - bohicasis · chicago, il · Jan 30, 2013 @ 10:18pm

Sharks don't attack people. Also, the Holocaust did not happen.
   comment# 14   - Greg Moore · San Anselmo CA U.S.A. · Jan 30, 2013 @ 10:18pm

A more obvious and logical path of action would be to simply not group "bumping" or "investigatory" behavior- arguably nips by,say, Blacktips- with obvious instances of predation, aka shark attacks. Ps give up the public conditioning insult the intelligence of actual ocean goers
   comment# 15   - drudown · Solana Beach, CA · Jan 30, 2013 @ 11:51pm

I have to say Kevin & Nick, please don't reproduce, we have enough idiots already!! There is a big difference between the swimmer that got their @$$ bit 7 times & the less than intelligent person (likely you or your friend/family) that grabs the tail of the nurse shark & gets a "let me go" bite or the fisherman that holds a fish wrong & gets bit. Sadly via stupidity our majestic paelegic sharks are in severe decline. Peter Benchly himself said on multiple occasions "if I had known my writing would initiate the mass killings of sharks I'd never printed it" & "I feel personally responsible for the decimation of the Great Whites"! Most attacks attributed to the Whites (such as the Mattawan Creek attacks that inspired "jaws") are now believed to be the work of Bull sharks. I take part in shark tagging trips at my own expense every year. Its sad to see they are still in decline. Btw to avoid attack just get out of the water when you hear the music start!!
   comment# 16   - capt. Chris Jensen · muskegon michigan · Jan 31, 2013 @ 1:04am

In my book "of Sharks and Men" I propose that the term "attAck" be used carefully! If a shark intended to really "attack" a person, severe damage or death would be the result.Instead, if a person was injured by a shark, the term "bite" would be more appropriate. However the word "attack", as used by the media for decades, has the impact of causing sensationlly reporting events. I agree with the article and it is offering sound advice. Interaction between human/shark will remain as long as we enter the sea.
   comment# 17   - desmond prout-jones · south africa · Jan 31, 2013 @ 1:26am

this is ridiculous. there are no other places on earth where this would be true. if you are walking in the woods, jungle, desert, etc and any animal bigger than a foot bites you... its an attack. this is some soft science here that's for sure.
   comment# 18   - jen · usa · Jan 31, 2013 @ 5:14am

I don't know to the sharks we taste "just like chicken", (seals). Their favorite food...Large 4 legged blubbery creatures that swim at the surface, and have a white fatty underbelly.
   comment# 19   - H_Man · Houston,USA · Jan 31, 2013 @ 5:33am

The scientifical research of this article is interesting and articulate. A lot of effort and time went into this report. The backlash of these comments is ridiculous. Nobody can be 100% certain of a shark's intentions. After reading some of the comments, It's proof their is ignorance and curiousness among us.
   comment# 20   - James Jenicek · Chicago,IL USA · Jan 31, 2013 @ 5:52am

Sharks are gentile missunderstood and careing creatures that want to be mans best friends and shark psychoanalists feel their motives and intentions need more consideration when analysing bites and atacks on humans.
   comment# 22   - Eric Sukhia · thomasville,Ga · Jan 31, 2013 @ 6:59am

Being a Social Darwinist viewing the World as Overpopulated I really wish we would do less to warn people about sharks, snakes, etc. Its nature's way of thinning the herd. Please take all the welfare people and prison populations and treat them to a beach trip in South Wales or Florida.
   comment# 23   - Michael Hoth · Houston Texas · Jan 31, 2013 @ 7:06am

It should be abundantly clear, even to the experts at Mote Marine Laboratory, that intent precipitates action. Hence, if an "incident" involves "one or more bites causing fatal injuries," it is, in and of itself, good and ample evidence of "motivation and intent."
   comment# 24   - Greg · Washington, DC · Jan 31, 2013 @ 7:22am

@desmont Look. How can you credibly contend a human such as Lloyd Skinner wasn't EATEN by a generalist feeder, apex predator that has ALWAYS been known to attack us? It's undisputed Science, unlike speculative pseudo-scientific "mistaken identity" groupthink. YouTube search "shark takes woman's leg". That evidence is an attack for predatory purposes by a hungry, migrating shark. Invoking media hysteria over non-events (White shark circles boat) may be sensational, but isn't it true that the aforementioned predatory behavior still works and is? People should look at Dr Ritter's attack as a case study for putting this book's precepts into practice. Contrary to your conditioning, certain sharks eat humans. Notably, after the USS Indianapolis sank, many "other" and commonly considered "harmless" sharks (e.g., Silky sharks) arrived to realize the feeding opportunity. This new 'thinking' obscures what sharks are and contravenes the opportunistic nature of their ecological niche by focusing on statistics that aren't even accurate or necessary to understand them and protect them.
   comment# 25   - drudown · Solana Beach, CA · Jan 31, 2013 @ 7:49am

no, it's not the shark's "fault", but it's still an attack. These people are silly. Lions attack zebras. Largemouth bass attach crawfish. Sharks attack fish, and seals. Sharks also attack people. Mistaken identity or not, it's still an attack.
   comment# 26   - chris · des moines, ia · Jan 31, 2013 @ 11:29am

What a pure crock of Liberal switch o change o doublespeak nonsense. This is surely some greenie attempt to put the poor shark in some sort of innocent light. Absolute idiocy and propaganda.
   comment# 27   - Driz · Plattsburg · Jan 31, 2013 @ 11:30am

Forgive my cynicism, but the search for a hot topic that will get you noticed and published seems to be the motive for this article. Why in the world is some human trying to state for the shark, what their behaviors and motives represent? Why is there so much effort going into making the shark the misunderstood "beast" here? Is the fear of sharks being in the water affecting the tourist trade? Now this I would believe is a motive to keep defending the shark. Someone's bank account is sufferiing in the area of tourism; fishing, scuba diving, underwater photography, etc.
   comment# 21   - SJ Sid · Paradise, USA · Jan 31, 2013 @ 11:57am

with all these shark attacks clearly we need shark background checks and registration of all shark teeth even if the shark has more than one tooth. we also need to create a shark land security agency by executive order if congress delays.
   comment# 28   - siltpuppy · silt,co · Jan 31, 2013 @ 3:32pm

Calling a shark attack an "attack" is not assigning BLAME to the shark. It's not about the shark at all, really. It's a statement of FACT to inform the PEOPLE in the area to help keep them SAFE. It's only the whackjobs who somehow put the SHARKS first, before the people, who are worrying about "blame" and other such nonsense. In many cases, these "experts" are taking public money for research purposes and to keep the public informed, and twisting their purpose around into a purely conservational purpose, disregarding peoples' safety and rep[lacing it with the wellbeing of the sharks. I consider myself a shark conservationist... but shark conservation and informing people of shark attack incidents are TWO SEPARATE ACTIVITIES.
   comment# 29   - Kevin Harris · Oak Park, CA USA · Feb 1, 2013 @ 1:23pm

Please remember this study costs anyone who donates to Save our Seas over $40,000.00 to produce. Neff got $20,00.00 and who knows actually how much Mote and Hueter got. I suspect Hueter and Mote got more than Neff did. This is your shark conservation dollars at work. Why do they want you to fall for this stuff, they want more dollars. Al Brenneka
   comment# 30   - Al Brenneka · Fort Lauderdale, Fl · Feb 1, 2013 @ 3:16pm
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