The Washington Post

Sharks’ reputation as man-eaters is unfair and threatens the species, authors say

Despite sensationalism, attacks on humans are rare and may be accidental, paper concludes. (Reuters/Reuters)

Ladies and gentlemen, good citizens everywhere, please listen to reason: The shark has been framed.

Reading at times like a defense attorney’s argument to a jury, a new study takes a lawyer’s approach to refuting the shark’s reputation as a bloodthirsty stalker of humans.

There’s no basis for believing that sharks have a taste for human flesh, the study argues. Human swimmers, often dressed in black wet suits and looking like seals, are mistaken for sharks’ usual prey.

Uninformed characterizations of shark bites by early scientists date back to the 1700s, according to the study, and media, public officials and others are parroting them. Some sightings are misrepresented as bites, the study says.

The study offers a simple solution: Stop using “shark attack” as a knee-jerk term for every encounter. Stop describing animals that rarely kill humans as “man-eaters.” And stop demonizing them with human motives, with names such as “rogue shark,” as if it shares traits with serial killers.

“Shark sightings” should be called just that, the study argues. A brush, bump, surfboard bite or close call is a “shark encounter.” A bite that results in injury should be identified as a “shark bite,” and a bite that leads to death should be called a “fatal shark bite.”

Christopher Neff, the study’s lead author, admitted it’s highly unlikely that people will stop describing encounters as attacks and that actual attacks have happened only on extremely rare occasions, but he said people should know that “not all shark attacks are created equal.”

“If you go after language, you’ve got to tell people the truth; they’re being misled, and the reports are fundamentally misleading,” said Neff, an American who is a doctoral candidate in government and international relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. His doctoral research is on the politics of shark attacks.

“We definitely approach this like lawyers arguing a case,” Neff said. The study was published online Jan. 23 in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

The study essentially represents two “clients” — beachgoers who have been misled into thinking sharks are constantly on the attack, and sharks that are being hunted to the brink of extinction, in part because of their reputation as killers, Neff said.

It started in 1758 when Carl Linneaus, a scientist, gave white sharks the “man-eater” label, according to the study. In 1933, a surgeon in Sydney said evidence confirmed that “sharks will attack man.” This went on until the 1975 movie “Jaws” made the great white shark into a monster.

In reality, there are on average about 100 shark encounters in the world annually, and fewer than 10 are fatal, said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and a co-author of the study.

Florida, popularly called the shark attack capital of the world for the number of reported incidents on state beaches, had nearly 640 unprovoked attacks over 130 years ending in 2012 and only 11 deaths, Hueter said.

“The reference between ‘shark attack’ and ‘great white sharks that eat people’ is ‘Jaws,’ a vivid . . . picture from a Hollywood movie that tells you exactly what you need to know,” Neff said.

Sensational television programming such as Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” imprints certain images in the public’s mind of sharks as deliberate hunters, Hueter said.

“Sharks before ‘Jaws’ were considered trash fish, evil and bad news,” he said. After the film, they became malevolent predators. “Sport fishing became popular, and killing sharks came into vogue.” (Discovery says the shows help sharks.)

Plenty of reports are labeled shark attacks, but they happen so fast that victims and witnesses can rarely identify the kind of shark.

And “there’s a whole universe where nothing happens,” Neff said. “We see sightings, and the shark swims away. There’s a small bite on a kayak, and the shark swims away.” But reporters and scientists call every encounter an attack. “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Neff said.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.

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