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Science, Policy and the public discourse of shark "attack": a proposal for reclassifying human-shark interactions

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Abstract

There are few phrases in the Western world that evoke as much emotion or as powerful an image as the words “shark” and “attack.” However, not all “shark attacks” are created equal. Under current labels, listings of shark attack may even include instances where there is no physical contact between shark and human. The dominant perception of intent-laden shark “attacks” with fatal outcomes is outdated as a generic term and misleading to the public. We propose new descriptive labels based on the different outcomes associated with human–shark interactions, including sightings, encounters, bites, and the rare cases of fatal bites. We argue two central points: first, that a review of the scientific literature shows that humans are “not on the menu” as typical shark prey. Second, we argue that the adoption of a more prescriptive code of reporting by scientists, the media, and policy makers will serve the public interest by clarifying the true risk posed by sharks and informing better policy making. Finally, we apply these new categories to the 2009 New South Wales Shark Meshing Report in Australia and the history of shark incidents in Florida to illustrate how these changes in terminology can alter the narratives of human–shark interactions.
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