New South Wales and Queensland Australia are breaking ground as they work with conservationists and survivors of shark attacks to shift the language surrounding sharks and their encounters with humans.
Events that have, in the past, been labeled as “shark attacks” are now being called “negative encounters” or “bites,” though authorities are deferring to victims and allowing them to describe their experiences however they choose.
The change comes as experts and officials respond to research noting that “attacks” from sharks are rare, and most human/shark encounters are accidental or not motivated by a desire to harm.
“Sharks don’t have hands so, if they want to explore something, they mouth it,” explained Nathan Hart, an associate professor at Macquarie University, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. Research supports the idea that what we’re used to calling shark attacks are actually misunderstandings, for the most part.
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Of course, for those that have survived an attack or negative encounter with a shark, the distinction between the two terms doesn’t make much difference. BITE CLUB, a private Facebook group of survivors, has worked with authorities to keep the focus on victims and their long-term recovery.
Still, everyone involved in the discussion hopes that the change in language will lead to greater understanding between humans and sharks, to avoid harm on both sides.
Leonardo Guida, of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, told The Sydney Morning Herald that the change in language “helps improve the public’s understanding of sharks and how they behave,” noting that the distinction between a “dog bite” and “dog attack” has a similar effect of nuancing the encounter and distinguishing between the outcome and intention.
Conservationists note that sharks are often misunderstood and portrayed in films as inherently predatory of humans, which is not a true description of their nature. By changing the wording of reports, the governments of NSW and Queensland hope to spread understanding of what motivates sharks to attack, bite, and otherwise harm humans.
On the Queensland government’s SharkSmart site, they list tips for swimmers such as swimming with a buddy and avoiding dawn or dusk, when sharks are more likely to be looking for food.
After a rash of attacks in 2018, local governments coordinated with community stakeholders to create a plan and mitigate risk to swimmers while protecting the local wildlife. Learn more about their ongoing research and the conversation surrounding shark/human encounters here!Whizzco