Are you being eaten by a shark? Here's a guide

Last updated 14:00 31/01/2013
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A great white shark. Let's not be too judgemental about its motives

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When a shark fin appears near a boat, surfboard or flailing limbs, the semantics of the event is usually far from thought.

Two researchers, however, want people to pause before describing the threat as an attack, especially when the intentions of the shark cannot be ascertained. Instead, words such as encounter or sighting are preferred and, they suggest, more accurate.

Christopher Neff, of the University of Sydney, and Dr Robert Hueter, of the Mote Marine Laboratory - Centre for Shark Research in Florida, offer four classifications for future interaction:

Shark sighting - Close to people but no physical contact.

Shark encounter - No human injury but surfboard or boat damage.

Shark bite - A non-fatal bite by a small or large shark.

Fatal shark bite - One or more bites causing death.

Glen Folkard, who was pulled under the surf in Newcastle last year and had a large chunk of flesh ripped from his thigh, was unimpressed with the proposed classifications, saying changing the word from attack was political correctness.

"The shark that hit me came at me like a speed boat ... it hit me so hard it knocked me clean out, I was drowning," he said.

"That's rushing towards me at high speed with teeth bared, I'd call that an attack, I wouldn't call that a little bite."

Dr Hueter said an abuse of language in the past had hindered the protection of shark species, particularly those under threat of extinction.

Shark teeth

"The idea that sharks are out there attacking humans, it doesn't reflect the reality of what we have learnt over the past 40 years about shark behaviour and biology - sharks are not maneaters, and in fact, many shark species are threatened by humans," Dr Hueter said after the study was published in the Environmental Studies and Sciences journal.

The maneater label, Mr Neff said, emerged two centuries ago from scientists with limited understanding of shark behaviour and biology.

He said a researcher erroneously suggested these sharks could go "rogue", developing a taste for human flesh, and these concepts led to public concern and resulting government responses. Many nations have used shark hunts and intensive commercial fishing targeting sharks, and even deployed naval depth charges, to kill supposed "rogue" sharks and protect the public.

"Popular culture - especially the novel and film Jaws in the 1970s - has strengthened rogue shark legends," said Mr Neff, a doctoral candidate conducting the first study on policy responses to shark bites.

"News media reports also have contributed to misconceptions of human-shark interactions.

"In NSW, 77 shark attacks were documented between 1979 and 2009, but 39 per cent of those involved no injuries to people.

"Not all shark 'attacks' are created equal, and we certainly shouldn't call bites on kayaks and bites on people the same thing," he said.

John West, the curator of the Australian Shark Attack File that records all shark incidents in Australia, agreed with the study but said he needed more time to consider whether the record books needed renaming.

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"I've only just read the paper, so I just need to look at the ramifications of that, but it might be that we revise the name to Australian Shark Encounter.

"It's valuable to de-demonise the sharks. They've always been blamed for these blood-thirsty attacks on humans but in reality they're only minor bites."

- Sydney Morning Herald


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