Tobey’s recent research suggests an optimistic outlook for the recovery of White Sharks in the Western Atlantic Ocean since protective measures were enacted in 1990s.
Did you come up with one of the following to fill in the above blank?
Mosquito. Bee. Bath tub. Jellyfish. Step ladder. Cone snail. Hippo. Elephant. Falling coconut. Bear. Moose. Banana peel. Cow. Pet dog. Stair. Neighbor. Common Cold. Tree. Peanut. Elk. Cliff. Car.
This is just a partial list of seemingly mundane things that kill more people than sharks kill every year. This list of animals and objects gets repeated every summer by shark scientists. In fact, it is as if there is an unspoken competition on who can come up with the most catchy, ridiculous shark bite risk statistic to feed to the media each year.
With all of these other things that are more likely to kill people, why are we so obsessed with shark attacks?
For decades, my fellow shark researchers and I tell the media until we are blue in the face that the risk of being bitten by a shark is extremely small. Ridiculously small. More rare than winning the lotto. Actually, it might be harder to name something that kills FEWER people at the beach than sharks do! It is so unusual that it is really not worth even talking about. Yet the rare and completely unnatural phenomenon of shark-human interaction still dominates how these animals are presented to the public.
Perhaps it is the rarity of such attacks that makes them newsworthy. Have we become desensitized to other more common ways that people are “attacked” and killed?
At a time in our history when society’s primary focus on sharks needs to be conservation and sustainability, the media insists on sidelining those major issues with sensationalism and stereotypes. News and “educational” networks continue to peddle Fear rather than Fascination.
Why is this so? Other large, charismatic carnivores like lions, wolves, or bears are now rarely portrayed in such negative light.
It can be mainly chalked up to pop culture and the mainstream media, and their perpetuation of negative shark stereotypes. And nothing dominates shark pop culture more than (a) JAWS and (b) Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Generally, the media stubbornly trails along in their wake, failing to acknowledge all of the wonderful, amazing aspects of sharks and their kin (over 1,000 species!) that have nothing to do with attacks on people. In all cases, Fear sells better than Fact, and science is a side-bar (if it is mentioned at all)
The term “shark attack” alone draws sensationalized negative connotations. It conjures bloody images from JAWS or any number of B-grade shark horror flicks (think Sharknado) where ‘mindless eating machines’ terrorize innocent sorority girls. “Attack” implies malicious intent. But if shark researchers have learned anything in the last 40 years, it’s that the JAWS image of sharks is completely false. Sharks do not take things personally. They do not hold grudges. And if they do happen to bite a person, it has nothing to do with malicious intent. For these, and other reasons, scientists have recommended to the media that they use the term “shark bite” rather than “attack.” “Bite” is a more emotionally neutral term (think “dog bite”), and one that is a more appropriate characterization of most shark-human interactions. It doesn’t unnecessarily vilify the shark.
Perceptions of Fear can be damaging. It is particularly frustrating when science is marginalized and negative shark stereotypes prevail in the political arena. As is often seen in various aspects of environmental resource management, public and political (mis)perceptions can override scientific evidence and factual information when policies are implemented. Two recent examples of shark fears winning out of shark facts are the government-sponsored shark culling programs in Western Australia, and the closing of the Manhattan Beach, California pier to fishing due to fear of shark bites on swimmers and surfers. In both cases, scientific consensus is that neither policy will have any measurable effect on the risk of a shark bite…which is, as stated above, absurdly low no matter what.
Sharks have been doing their thing in the oceans for millenia. They are apex predators with senses and behaviors long-adapted for pursuing prey of all shapes and sizes. But humans only started venturing into the ocean for recreation about 100 years ago. We humans are not natural prey, and are simply not on their menu. We are foreign invaders, and a novel experience for sharks. So even on occasions when people and sharks share the same space at the same time (far more often than you might think), the sharks typically completely ignore us and go about their business of searching for natural prey.
All that being said, the ocean is a wilderness, not a swimming pool. Just like going for a walk in the woods, use some common sense, and acknowledge that there are risks associated with recreating in nature. Do not be afraid of sharks, but respect them and their place in their environment. Pick up a book and read about how fascinating sharks, skates, and rays really are. Sharks have seven senses. Some are huge and some are tiny. Some sharks are warm-blooded. Some glow in the dark. Some have horns and some have spines. Some live in the sunny tropics and some live in the deepest, coldest depths of the ocean. Some can be trained like a dog. Some have teeth like steak knives, and some have no real teeth at all.
When it comes to the group as a whole, most sharks are entirely harmless, and many are seriously threatened by overfishing. And shouldn’t that should be the real story?
International Shark Attack File statistics: