As It Happens·Q&A

Why some scientists want to rebrand shark attacks as 'negative encounters'

Dropping the phrase "shark attack" is a great way to change the narrative about the much-maligned sea creatures, says marine scientist Toby Daly-Engel.

Most shark bites are provoked by humans, so it's not accurate to call them 'attacks,' says marine scientist

A great white shark lifts its head. Scientists in Australia and the U.S. are speaking out against the term 'shark attack,' saying it's misleading because most shark bites are provoked by humans. (Getty Images)

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Dropping the phrase "shark attack" is a great way to change the narrative about the 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 that term in favour of more neutral language, like "bites," "incidents" or "negative encounters."

The story drew swift mockery online, as well as backlash from an organization that represents people who have been injured by sharks

But Daly-Engel, director of the Florida Tech Shark Conservation Lab, says we're long overdue for a language shift when it comes to the misunderstood ocean dwellers, which are at a greater risk from humans than vice versa.

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

What do you make of the Australian decision to rebrand shark attacks?

I think it's a really good step in the right direction, because for a long time we've known that [with] shark attacks, it really depends on people, not on sharks. And so trying to rebrand these interactions in a way that more accurately represents the event is really good as far as we're concerned.

But this is being mocked quite a bit, especially the suggested terminology, "negative" shark "encounters." Isn't a shark attack sometimes just a shark attack?

Actually, most shark attacks are what we call provoked, meaning they are instigated by humans. And so the notion of a shark attack kind of conjures an attack out of the blue by some sort of mindless, bloodthirsty predator. And in reality, that's not it at all.

Most things that get labelled by the media as shark attack are things like people poking sharks underwater, chumming where people are swimming or doing other things that really create a situation where somebody might be hurt 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 though it's the most recognizable terminology, it's really inaccurate.

I guess, though, if a shark is biting you, whether it's being called an attack or an interaction isn't really the first thing on your mind.

Sure. But at the same time, in general, sharks have, in reality, way more to fear from humans than we do from them. 

Shark attack[s are] monumentally rare, more rare than being bitten by someone from New York, statistically speaking. Whereas humans are — conservatively, this is an underestimate — we're taking at least 100 million sharks out of the ocean every year.

And what we're finding as scientists is that [sharks] ... reproduce more slowly than we realized, even more slowly than people. And so many, many shark populations are really in trouble. And that's not good because sharks as predators are really helpful for keeping the rest of the food items, the prey in the food web, in check and keeping them in balance.

The terminology may sound unnatural or silly to some people, but that's because most people's concept of what is a shark attack is really based on the rarest kind.- Toby Daly-Engel, marine scientist 

What kind of a difference do you believe this change of terminology could mean for how people view sharks?

I hope that it sheds light on the fact that sharks have more to fear from us than we do from them.

Like I said, the terminology may sound unnatural or silly to some people, but that's because most people's concept of what is a shark attack is really based on the rarest kind. 

Sharks are much more careful, much more fragile than people realize. They're very long lived. Some species we now know can live over 400 years. They're more likely to scavenge dead prey than they are to attack live prey, because their natural prey has things like spines and claws and beaks that can hurt them.

So when an attack occurs on a human, it's because we are in their environment and they mistake us for a natural prey item, or they don't know what we are and they go to figure it out with. Like dogs and babies, sharks can only really figure things out using their mouths.

A woman floating on the surface of the water in Compass Cay in the Exumas, as nurse sharks swim beneath her. Scientists say that despite pop culture depictions, most sharks are small to medium-sized. (Khaichuin Sim/Getty Images)

A spokesperson for a group representing people who have been bitten by sharks told the [Sydney Morning Herald] that he's worried about "sanitizing" shark bites. What would you say to him?

I would say that shark attacks in general are going down per capita, even though the number of people that are in the water is going up. And that's because we know we've lost up to 70 per cent of all sharks just in the last 50 years. And that is going to have grave consequences on our ocean health.

Anybody who likes the ocean, likes seeing fish in the ocean, all of that diversity is in danger without the predators. And most sharks are not at the top of the food chain. Most sharks are not what we think of as apex predators. There's not that many massive ones. Most sharks are these cute little medium-sized things. They are both predator and prey. And without them, what we see is what's called extinction cascade.

Considering you're more likely to get struck by lightning … than bitten by a shark, considering you're more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark, I think that there is very little chance of this type of measure minimizing shark attack. It has a much better chance of kind of helping people to understand that most of what the media calls shark attacks are really not the shark's fault. They're really just due to people.

Maybe we need some horror movies about vending machine attacks and New York City bite attacks.

I mean, just don't shake them. Like, 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 that people have about sharks, is rebranding really going to make much of a difference here?

Even if there's some mockery, there's some silliness, regardless of this kind of attention, if it can help people understand the role that sharks play in the ecosystem and how mistaken our ideas are about shark attack, then, yeah, maybe it'll do a little bit of good.

Sharks are feared. There are very few laws protecting them. And yet we know that these things grow more slowly and reproduce more slowly than just about any animal on Earth. And so they are incredibly in need of protection.

So every little bit can help because there's not a lot of, you know, big movements out there for shark advocacy. There's no such thing as shark-safe tuna, for instance. So I think because there is that fear, it's even more important that institutions speak up on behalf of these animals, which are really, really important to the health of our planet's oceans. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited by length and clarity.

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