The term "shark attack" is being used to describe all sorts of encounters between humans and sharks, leading to inaccurate reporting and misconceptions about shark risks, researchers say.
A new system to classify the risk for swimmers and divers has been proposed by University of Sydney doctoral candidate Christopher Neff and Dr Robert Hueter from Florida's Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research.
In a study published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, the authors analysed shark statistics from NSW and Florida and found the term "shark attack" was misleading in many cases.
For instance in NSW, a 2009 government report documented 200 shark attacks, even though 38 of those involved no injuries to people.
"A nudge on a kayak is not the same thing as a shark attack," Mr Neff told AAP.
"You're just scaring people for no good reason if you call a shark sighting a shark attack.
"It suggests the shark has intent or motive and it doesn't give you any information on what happened."
The study authors have put together four categories to classify shark incidents by, including shark sightings, shark encounters, shark bites and fatal shark bites.
"We're essentially trying to inform beachgoers better. These categories provide better information so that people can judge their level of risk based on local shark activity," he said.
"If we can talk about it in a more informed way, we can have policies that reflect the varying level of the way sharks interact with humans."
Proposed new shark attack categories:
Shark sightings - Sightings of sharks in the water near people with no physical contact
Shark encounters - No bite takes place and no humans are injured, but physical contact is made with a person or object holding a person, such as a surfboard. A shark might also bump a swimmer and cause a minor abrasion with its rough skin
Shark bites - Bites by small or large sharks that result in minor to moderate injuries
Fatal shark bites - One or more bites causing fatal injuries