Shark attack? No, just an accident

By Mike Rose

Shark bites are often defensive or a result of curiosity, says Australian researcher Christopher Neff.
Photo / Supplied
Shark bites are often defensive or a result of curiosity, says Australian researcher Christopher Neff. Photo / Supplied

Forget Jaws those marauders don't want to eat people, writes Mike Rose

Rogue sharks hunting humans are a myth - and a dangerous one, says a Sydney scientist.

Steven Spielberg, it appears, has a lot to answer for.

His "rogue shark", hunting down humans and deliberately out to cause chaos, seems to have created an indelible image in our collective psyche.

We now believe we must be extremely wary of all sharks, because if they become aware we are there, they will seek us out and attack, usually with gruesome consequences.

"Not so," says Sydney scientist Christopher Neff.

That image, he says, is nothing more than Hollywood hype, which has been reinforced by decades of emotive language and sensationalist reporting.

"Swimmers are in the way, not on the menu," says the University of Sydney researcher who - in what is believed to be a world first - is doing his PhD thesis on the politics of shark bites and other close encounters.

"There is no evidence that any shark species develops a taste for human flesh."

While his research is not complete, Neff is calling for an end to the term "shark attack".

He believes that what he calls the persistent myths and sensationalism about shark bites and close encounters can lead to ineffective political solutions.

These, he says, do little if anything to ensure such events do not re-occur.

As an example, he cites a recent case in West Australia where a "shark hunt" was authorised after three deaths.

Even if the hunt had gone ahead, he believes, no swimmer would have been any safer than if nothing was done.

While not dismissing the seriousness of shark bites, which often have dramatic and even lethal consequences, Neff says authorities and the media should concentrate on giving accurate and helpful information.

One example of this, he says, would be telling people that shark numbers increase in summer in places such as the Parramatta River and Sydney Harbour.

Another would be advising people not to swim in those areas for three days after heavy rain because the rain creates sewage overflows and the sewage attracts sharks.

Neff also dislikes the way shark bites are generally portrayed as attacks.

"The bites are often defensive or done out of curiosity," he says.

To back up that contention, Neff points out that more than a tenth of the bites recorded in New South Wales are by wobbegongs, a carpet shark that does not attack unless it is provoked.

"That means someone was stepping on it or pestering it," he says.

Despite what most of us appear to believe, humans are of little interest to sharks, Neff says.

We simply don't provide that much nutrition.

Neff points out that given the increasing numbers of swimmers in the water as populations in coastal areas grow, there would be many more bites if sharks did want to attack people. Many of us also often share the water with many more sharks than we realise. Ask anyone who has flown in a small plane low over the beaches of eastern Coromandel or Bay of Plenty.

They will tell you that, during the warm summer months, they often see hundreds of sharks just outside the surf line, often only metres away from surfers.

Yet when was the last time there was a "shark attack" in those waters?

Even in Australia, such incidents are far rarer than we might believe.

Amy Smoothey, a shark researcher with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, has been reported as saying that on Australia Day last year she discovered seven mature bull sharks in Sydney Harbour.

These bull sharks were not only sharing the water with thousands of people, but a harbour swimming race was on at the same time.

Yet there were no incidents, or even reported sightings of the sharks.

Rather than being concerned about the fact there were sharks in the harbour, Smoothey believes locals should be grateful for their presence - it means the area is a healthy waterway.

Despite the reports from Western and South Australia, in particular, incidents of people being seriously bitten by sharks are quite rare.

In Australia, over the past 50 years there has been, on average, one person killed by a shark each year.

In New Zealand, the shark death toll is even lower - substantially so.

While not wanting to downplay the tragedy of the fatalities that do occur, Neff believes we will be better off if we recognise the events for what they are.

"Before the 'rogue shark' concept, shark attacks were often referred to as 'shark accidents'."

- NZ Herald

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