Three Lessons About The Reality of Shark Bites

Christopher Neff is a third-year doctoral researcher in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney studying the “politics of shark attacks.”

As another summer of shark news and Shark Week come to a close, it is helpful to look back on what we have learned. The goal is to approach next summer a bit smarter and safer in how think about shark behavior, the ocean and our behavior in the water. I think there are three lessons for us from the summer of 2012.

First, as much as cable news likes to report on shark “attack” stories, context should matter. Shark bumps or bites on kayaks are not “attacks.” Clearly, sharks bite people and I am certain that being in the kayak (that is being followed by a great white shark) is terrifying, but calling shark-kayak interactions shark “attacks” is misleading. In fact, in the recent cases where the shark bit the kayak or the person was dumped into the water, the shark swam away.

The issue here is not simply the importance of accuracy in media reporting, but the missed opportunity in water safety education. Telling the whole story provides information to water user groups. With more people using kayaks, jet skis, and paddleboards there will be more bumps and bites from sharks. Being aware and informed of the risks is a key element in water safety.

Second, it is important to recognize every summer that there are no quick fixes to shark bites because more and more people are going into the water. This is a math problem, not a shark problem. We go into the water in larger numbers, for longer periods of time and do more things, all of which increases the chances of human-shark interactions. As a result, strategies by politicians to govern (including killing) sharks as a way to reduce shark bites are built for failure. It is a tragedy is that shark bites happen. We all want the safest possible experience in the water, but safety is linked to our understanding that the ocean comes with inherent risks.

Third, the possibility of shark bites is not always low. These can be very serious and fatal incidents, particularly in certain locations and with certain activities. For instance, spearfishing is a great way to attract sharks anywhere and swimming near seal-colonies can also be risky. At Reunion Island (in the Indian ocean), there has been a spike in fatal shark bites. Looking at the data, 71% of shark bites have been on people surfing, wind surfing, body boarding or underwater fishing. But only 5% have been on swimmers and 8% on divers.

Shark bite prevention education can be tailored to the area, activity and species of sharks around. This is certainly not foolproof, but there are more options than have previously been considered that may work better and inform the public more accurately.

For next summer, my hope is that context matters, education increases and we consider our role in the water as a way to reduce risks. Dealing with shark bites is not easy and solutions are complicated but more can be done in 2013 to adopt a user-group approach that connects good science with common sense.

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