Don’t Call Them ‘Shark Attacks,’ Scientists Say

On the seashores of Western Australia, by California’s crashing waves and in sight of Hawaii’s blue depths, “shark attacks” are slowly disappearing, at the very least as a phrase utilized by researchers and officers who’ve been rethinking tips on how to describe the moments when sharks and people meet.

Last week, two Australian states drew swift mockery when The Sydney Morning Herald reported that they have been shifting away from the phrase in favor of phrases like “bites,” “incidents” and “encounters.”

Shark scientists have lengthy referred to as for much less sensational language, saying that they don’t seem to be making an attempt to police anybody’s speech. Rather, they stated, they need to change the general public’s notion about animals whose inhabitants has plummeted by 71 % since 1970, largely from overfishing. The disappearance of sharks threatens to upend marine ecosystems and important sources of meals, they are saying.

Officials in some U.S. and Australian states have been cautious to say that they’d chosen their language for precision and never due to political correctness or stress from activists.

“I can understand the sort of pushback to what we’re talking about, as a shift to kind of comical euphemism,” stated Catherine Macdonald, a marine conservation biologist and the director of the Field School, a analysis institute in South Florida. “But I think that some of the shifts being described are actually a push toward greater accuracy and detail.”

Dr. Macdonald and different scientists stated that shark bites ought to be described as bites, however that context issues. There are greater than 500 species of shark — small and colossal, glowing and roaming — and folks meet them swimming, fishing, browsing and doing any variety of different actions.

“There’s a real disconnect between the human imagination of shark attacks and the reality of it,” stated Toby Daly-Engel, the director of the Florida Tech Shark Conservation Lab. “A lot of what’s called a shark attack in society is actually provoked by humans.”

People step on small sharks, which flip round and snap. Divers — and, in at the very least one case, an Instagram mannequin — have gotten too shut, and sharks have reacted. Unprovoked bites generally happen in murky water, Dr. Daly-Engel stated, as when a white shark errors a surfer for a seal.

But bites are terribly uncommon, she stated — globally, there are about 70 to 80 unprovoked bites a yr, and about 5 deaths — and sharks normally flee after bodily contact with an individual.

“A ‘shark attack’ is a story of intent,” stated Christopher Pepin-Neff, a lecturer in public coverage on the University of Sydney who has studied human perceptions of sharks. “But sharks don’t know what people are. They don’t know when you’re in the boat. They don’t know what a propeller is. It’s not an attack.”

In Australia, the Queensland authorities presents steering to reduce “your risk of a negative encounter with a shark.” Western Australia makes use of “bite” and “incident” in its alert system and generally “shark interaction,” normally when there isn’t any chew.

Most unprovoked shark bites are reported within the United States, the place the shift in language started in earnest inside the previous 10 years. For instance, fish and wildlife officers in California have tracked accidents, deaths and “incidents” since about 2017 for circumstances the place a shark touches folks or their surfboard, kayak or different merchandise. In Hawaii, officers have used “human-shark encounters” for almost a decade.

A Hawaii authorities web site notes that “dog bites” are referred to as “dog attacks” in solely extraordinary circumstances. Dan Dennison, a spokesman for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, stated that every time he had been requested why a shark attacked somebody, “My response is always, ‘Until we can interview the shark we have no idea.’”

One exception to the rebranding development seems to be Florida, the place the Fish and Wildlife Commission has a piece on its web site about “shark attacks.” A spokeswoman, Carly Jones, stated that the fee “does not have involvement with this topic.”

Whatever time period is used, shark scientists careworn that sharks are wild animals and ought to be handled with warning and respect. The threat of a severe chew is awfully small — individuals are extra more likely to die from a bee sting, sunstroke or bicycle accident — however shark bites may cause devastating hurt.

“For those who have lived experience, a shark bite is a deeply traumatic event, and they may feel they were attacked,” stated Leonardo Guida, a scientist with the Australian Marine Conservation Society. Talking in regards to the language, he stated, “opens an opportunity to take into account what they experienced and ultimately determine what actually happened.”

Most of the time when people are close to sharks, although, nothing occurs. People are sometimes oblivious.

“If you’ve been in the ocean there was probably a shark near you, and it probably knew you were there even if you didn’t know it was there,” stated David Shiffman, a marine biologist and the creator of the ebook “Why Sharks Matter.” Dr. Macdonald and a workforce just lately found an awesome hammerhead nursery off the coast of Miami, for example — the primary one discovered on the Atlantic coast of the United States.

The shift away from the phrase “attack” has drawn some criticism, together with from the founding father of the Bite Club, a help group for survivors. On Friday, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson stated that if the brand new phrases have been adopted, “when a great white chews your leg off it’s a ‘negative interaction.’”

But Dr. Shiffman stated the brand new phrases have been “not about P.C. culture run amok.”

“This is about being accurate without being inflammatory,” he stated. “Inflammatory coverage makes people afraid of sharks, and might potentially mean less support for their conservation and potentially support for their extermination.”

Thanks to the film “Jaws” and common tradition prefer it, sharks bought “the bad end of the P.R. stick,” stated Jasmin Graham, the president of Minorities in Shark Scientists and a marine biologist on the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Fla. “Everyone has this collective negative reaction to them,” she stated, “and that’s rooted in the media we consume.”

Chris Lowe, a professor and the director of the Shark Lab at California State University in Long Beach, in contrast the general public’s notion of sharks to the favored 19th-century picture of whales as “demonic animals” that “kill people.”

By the 1970s, when whales have been hunted almost to extinction, the general public’s view had shifted radically. People may see footage of whales being harpooned, and the message unfold that whales have been mammals that nursed their younger and communicated vocally via clicks, chirps and songs.

It amounted to “the best rebranding ever,” Dr. Lowe stated.

“We have tons of footage of sharks and people together and people aren’t being bitten,” he stated. “So why should we be afraid?”

Still, scientists weren’t unanimous in regards to the significance of fixing public notion.

“Will changing the name to ‘shark encounters’ really help the general public have a different perspective? I don’t think so,” stated Gavin Naylor, the director of the International Shark Attack File on the University of Florida, which distinguishes between provoked and unprovoked bites. “There’s people in the general public that call them ‘shark attacks’ all the time and they’re environmentalists. It’s just a phrase that everybody uses.”

Far extra vital than language, Dr. Naylor stated, was a give attention to regulation and stopping overfishing.

Ms. Graham stated sharks wanted each the general public and governments on their facet, and shortly.

“We’re losing sharks so fast that by the time we realize how bad it is, it’s pretty bad,” she stated. “When did we need to start worrying about it? The answer is yesterday. So we should start doing things today.”

Maria Cramer contributed reporting.