Shark Attack: Inaccurate and “Outdated” Terminology

Written by on February 1, 2013 in Policy & Ocean Law, Sharks
Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias).

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias). Photo credit:pterantula via photopin cc.

We’ve already learned that sharks suffer from a bad public image due primarily to a media bias. The vast majority of news sources in the U.S. and Australia portray sharks in a negative light and include no information about conservation issues or the threats sharks face.

Now, a new report suggests that even referring to human-shark interactions as “shark attacks” is problematic.

Christopher Neff a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, Australia, and Dr. Robert Hueter of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research in Florida, are proposing a new classification system to describe human-shark interactions more accurately.

By analyzing shark statistics around the world, the researchers found that the term “shark attack” is often misleading. One of the best examples of this is from a 2009 government report from New South Wales, Australia that recorded 200 shark attacks. However, 38 of those “attacks” did not result in any injuries to humans.

“Not all shark ‘attacks’ are created equal, and we certainly shouldn’t call bites on kayaks and bites on people the same thing,” Neff said.

“Nor should we equate the single bite of a 2-foot shark on a surfer’s toe with the fatal bite of a 15-foot shark on a swimmer, but that’s how the current language treats these incidents,” added Dr. Hueter.

The suggestions for new classification terms are much more specific and would foster better discussions of shark incidents. The categories are as follows:

  1. Shark sightings: incidents where sharks are seen near people but there is no physical human-shark contact
  2. Shark encounters: incidents where physical contact occurs between a shark and a human or the object (surfboard, kayak) holding that human; includes “close calls” like a shark bumping into a human
  3. Shark bites: incidents where a shark bites a human and results in minor to moderate injuries; very different from a “shark attack” which can only be classified by qualified experts
  4. Fatal shark bites: incidents where a shark bites a human and results in death

“These new categories provide better information to the public so they can judge their levels of risk based on local shark activity,” Neff said. “If ‘sightings’ of sharks are increasing, or if ‘encounters’ with kayaks are decreasing these are important pieces of information. There simply is no value in using ‘attack’ language. It is time to move past Jaws.”

Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas).

Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). Photo credit: AlKok via photopin cc.

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Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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