Redefining the Term "Shark Attack"

Two researchers set out to change the way we view shark behavior.

Blacktip Shark

Blacktip Shark

Courtesy NOAA Photo Library

Researchers Christopher Neff, of the University of Sydney, Australia, and Robert Hueter, of Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research, are out to re-classify the term "shark attack." To many in the scientific and fishing communities, shark behavior has long been misreported or mischaracterized in news reports about people and shark interactions.

Neff and Hueter definitely agree. Their new study calls on the public — and society, in general — to look at shark encounters in four different ways. We'll call it the Neff-Hueter Naming System:

1) Shark sightings: Sightings of sharks in the water in proximity to people with no physical contact.

2) Shark encounters: No bite takes place and no humans are injured, but physical contact occurs with a person or an inanimate object holding a person, such as a surfboard or boat. A shark might also bump a swimmer and its rough skin might cause a minor abrasion.

3) Shark bites: Bites by small or large sharks that result in minor to moderate injuries.

4) Fatal shark bites: One or more bites causing fatal injuries. Even in this case, Neff and Hueter caution against using the term "shark attack" unless the motivation and intent of the shark are clearly established by experts, which is rarely possible.

"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."

Tampa Bay Times' Terry Tomalin points out that fatal shark attacks are rare worldwide, with records showing only 11 fatal bites over the past 129 years in Florida. In my hometown waters of Volusia and Brevard counties, the beaches have gained a reputation as the Shark Bite Capital of the Florida. In 2012, Brevard had eight interactions, while Volusia just seven.

Still, the two adjacent counties on the east central coast account for more than half of Florida's shark-human interactions, largely because of the high numbers of beach-goers, surfers, divers and tourists that crowd the shores. Not one of those interactions lead to a fatality in 2012. Only seven fatalities resulted from unprovoked attacks in 2012, recorded in South Africa (3), Australia (2), California (1) and La Reunion, Indian Ocean (1).

"Our contemporary scientific understanding of sharks paints a very different picture than that current public discourse and even early research," says Hueter, an expertise in shark biology, behavior and ecology. "Few sharks look like the large great whites you might see on the movie screen. Most shark species rarely, if ever, come into contact with humans. When they do, serious bites are the extremely rare exception rather than the rule."

It's time to stop using "shark attack" in our common vernacular.