Few words, used in combination, conjure as much fear as “shark attack.”
Yet, the phrase appears year-after-year in news headlines to describe fairly benign occurrences.
“If you look at these ‘attacks’ incident by incident, few are serious,” said Dr. Robert Hueter, leader of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research. Most often, a 2-foot shark nipped a surfer’s foot, “which is not the same as a 15-foot shark fatally biting a swimmer,” he said.
Additionally, “attack” implies malevolent intent, “and no shark is out hunting the ocean for human prey,” said Hueter.
Dramatic wording can have unintended consequences, such as a drop in tourism. In 2001, during the so-called “summer of the shark,” Hueter fielded phone calls from people in Europe and South America, who were hesitant to vacation in Florida and wanted his assessment of the danger.
Those phone calls compelled Hueter to set straight the misconception reinforced with every viewing of “Jaws,” “Shark Week” and countless broadcast news segments. Working with Christopher Neff, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sydney, Hueter analyzed shark statistics from around the world, as well as Associated Press articles in Florida from 2001, to determine how much reality deviates from public opinion.
Their findings appear in “Science, policy and the public discourse of shark ‘attacks’: a proposal for reclassifying human-shark interactions” published Jan. 23, in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. In the study, Hueter and Neff suggest four categories to describe shark incidents, rather than using the fear-mongering blanket term, “attack.” The categories include:
• Shark sightings, when sharks are spotted in proximity to people and no physical contact occurs;
• Shark encounters, when a shark bumps a person or an inanimate object containing a person, such as a surfboard or boat;
• Shark bites, when a shark injures a human;
• Fatal shark bites, when a shark bites a human and inflicts fatal injuries.
Using this classification, the perceived threat of swimming off Florida’s coasts goes way down: Of the 637 confirmed cases of shark “attacks” since 1882, only 11 have been fatal bites.
“People have accused me of being a lawyer to the sharks,” Hueter said. But this is really for people, to let them know it’s safe to get back in the water.”