Dropping the phrase “shark attack” is a great way to change the narrative about much-maligned sea creatures, says marine scientist Toby Daly-Engel. Last week, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that scientists in two Australian states are moving away from this term in favor of a more neutral language, such as “bites”, “incidents” or “negative encounters”.
The story sparked quick teasing online, as well as backlash from an organization representing people who have been injured by sharks.
But Daly-Engel, director of the Florida Tech Shark Conservation Lab, says we’ve long been waiting for a language change when it comes to misunderstood ocean dwellers, who are at greater risk to humans than the other way around.
Here is part of his conversation with As it happens guest host Susan Bonner.
What do you think of Australia’s decision to rename shark attacks?
I think this is a very good step in the right direction because we have known for a long time that [with] shark attacks, it really depends on the people, not the sharks. And so trying to rename those interactions in a way that more accurately represents the event is really good as far as we’re concerned.
But that much is laughed at, especially the suggested terminology, negative “encounters” with sharks. Isn’t a shark attack sometimes just a shark attack?
In fact, most shark attacks are what we call provoked, which means they are caused by humans. And so the notion of a shark attack sort of conjures up an unannounced attack by some kind of stupid, bloodthirsty predator. And in reality, it is not that at all.
Most of the things that are labeled by the media as shark attacks are things like people biting sharks underwater, mumbling where people are swimming, or doing other things that really create a situation where someone is swimming. one could be injured by a shark.
But the vast majority of these interactions are not actually due to the shark. And so the notion of shark attack, even if it’s the most recognizable terminology, is really inaccurate.
I guess, however, that if a shark bites you, whether it’s an attack or an interaction isn’t really the first thing you think of.
Sure. But at the same time, in general, sharks actually have much more to fear from humans than we do from them.
Shark attack[s are] monumentalement rare, rarer than being bitten by someone from New York, statistically speaking. While humans are – conservatively, it’s an understatement – we remove at least 100 million sharks from the ocean every year.
And what we find out as scientists is that [sharks] … Reproduce more slowly than we thought, even more slowly than humans. And so, a lot of shark populations are really in trouble. And that’s not good because sharks as predators are really helpful in keeping the rest of the food, the food web prey, in check and in balance.
The terminology may seem unnatural or silly to some people, but that’s because most people’s concept of what a shark attack is is really based on the rarer type.– Toby Daly-Engel, marine scientist
What kind of difference do you think this change in terminology might mean for the way people perceive sharks?
I hope this highlights the fact that sharks have more to fear from us than we do from them.
Like I said, the terminology might sound unnatural or silly to some people, but that’s because most people’s concept of what a shark attack is is really based on the rarer type. .
Sharks are much more careful, much more fragile than people realize. They live a very long time. Some species we know now can live for more than 400 years. They are more likely to scavenge dead prey than attack live prey, as their natural prey have things like thorns, claws, and beaks that can hurt them.
So, when an attack occurs against a human, it is because we are in his environment and they take us for natural prey, or they do not know what we are and they will. discover with. Like dogs and babies, sharks can only really figure things out by using their mouths.
A spokesperson for a group representing people bitten by sharks said to [Sydney Morning Herald] that he’s worried about “disinfecting” shark bites. What would you say to him?
I would say shark attacks in general are decreasing on a per capita basis, although the number of people in the water is increasing. And it’s because we know we have lost up to 70% of all sharks in the past 50 years. And this will have serious consequences for the health of our oceans.
Anyone who loves the ocean, loves to see fish in the ocean, all this diversity is in danger without predators. And most sharks aren’t at the top of the food chain. Most sharks are not what we think of as top predators. There aren’t many massive. Most sharks are those adorable, small to medium sized things. They are both predators and prey. And without them, what we see is what is called an extinction cascade.
Considering that you are more likely to be struck by lightning … than bitten by a shark, considering you are more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark, I think there is very little chance that this type of measure will minimize shark attacks. This is much more likely to help people understand that most of what the media calls shark attacks really aren’t the sharks’ fault. They are really due to the people.
Maybe we need horror movies about vending machine attacks and bite attacks in New York City.
I mean, don’t shake them. For example, if you can’t get your chips out, just leave them there. That’s all I can say.
But after movies like Jaws and the innate fear people have of sharks, is the rebranding really going to make a big difference here?
Even if there is mockery, there is silliness, regardless of that kind of attention, if it can help people understand the role sharks play in the ecosystem and how much our ideas about it. shark attacks are wrong, so, yeah, maybe that’ll be a little good.
Sharks are feared. There are very few laws protecting them. And yet, we know that these things grow slower and reproduce more slowly than any animal on Earth. And so they are in dire need of protection.
So every little bit can help because there isn’t a lot, you know, big moves in shark defense. For example, shark-safe tuna does not exist. So I think because of this fear it’s even more important that institutions speak out on behalf of these animals, which are really, really important to the health of our planet’s oceans.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview conducted by Chris Harbord. The questions and answers have been modified in terms of length and clarity.