2 Australian States Rebrand Shark Attacks As 'Encounters'

They're softening language around human-shark incidents to reduce illogical fear.

shark attack sign in Recife, Brazil
Sign warns of possible shark attack at Boa Viagem beach in Recife, Brazil.

K Martinko

Officials in two Australian states, New South Wales and Queensland, would like people to stop referring to run-ins with sharks as "attacks" and start calling them "incidents" or "encounters" instead. The change in language, which was presented at a shark symposium in May 2021, has support from scientists. 

Leonardo Guida, a shark researcher at the Australian Marine Conservation Society who attended the symposium, agrees the change "helps dispel inherent assumptions that sharks are ravenous, mindless man-eating monsters." 

The fact is, on average sharks kill only four to five people annually worldwide. Last year 10 deaths were recorded, but that was considered unusually high, with the most deadly encounters since 2013. Bites are more common, with a global yearly average of 80, but again, most of these are nonfatal. People would do well to embrace some perspective. The odds of being killed by a shark in the U.S. are 3,748,067 to 1. You're far more likely to die from a bee sting, a dog bite, or even a lightning strike.

Generally, a shark—whose 450-million-year-old powers of perception have not yet evolved to recognize us new human creatures in the water—will engage in an exploratory bite to check if a swimming or surfing human is a sea lion or seal. Upon discovering that they are not, the shark lets go and leaves, although occasionally great damage has already been done.

Rob Stewart films a white tip shark
Rob Stewart films an Oceanic Whitetip shark up close for 'Sharkwater: Extinction'.

Rob Stewart Sharkwater Foundation

Sandy Campbell of the Rob Stewart Sharkwater Foundation tells Treehugger, "Sharks don’t attack people! And when they do bite, it’s an accident and they let go. You’re not their food! It’s a great idea and important to change the language and the perception people have of sharks. People see sharks as monsters as they have been portrayed in films like Jaws."

People who have encountered sharks should be allowed to describe the experiences in their own language, according to New South Wales' Department of Primary Industries, though it does "generally refer to 'incidents' or 'interactions' in [its] formal shark reporting." The Sydney Morning Herald said the department "has worked closely with Bite Club, a support group for survivors to inform its language."

When incidents do happen, it fuels illogical rage against these animals. As shark researcher Guida told the Herald, "The choice of words can be potent since public fears about beach safety can be inflamed by alarmist language by politicians and the media." In reality, these animals are in far greater danger from humans than we are from them. Roughly 100 million sharks are killed annually through hunting and bycatch in fishing nets. 

shark attack sign in Australia
Sign on a beach in Australia in 2009.

Getty Images/Ian Waldie

Criminalizing sharks in our minds makes us less inclined to protect them as the crucial apex predators that they are—and this comes with an environmental cost. Campbell of the Sharkwater Foundation continued:

"Sharks are really important to the ocean ecosystem, managing the populations of fish and creatures below them. They protect reefs, sea grass areas, and hold carbon in their bodies, so they help with climate change. Oceans give us 60% of the oxygen we breathe and absorb our heat and excess carbon, the gas that causes climate change. We can’t live on land without healthy oceans, and sharks manage that."

If a simple change in official language can guide people toward a calmer, more rational view of sharks, then it's a worthwhile move. "People should love sharks," Campbell said. "Changing the language is a great first step to people understanding their value."