Why you should still call shark attacks shark attacks

Scientists in Australia and elsewhere want to rebrand what we call it when sharks bite humans. Whether you agree depends on whether you sympathize more with the sharks or the humans.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Authorities in Queensland and NSW [New South Wales] are signalling a shift away from describing encounters between sharks and humans as “attacks”, a move scientists say is both welcome and well overdue.

A senior Queensland official told a Noosa shark symposium in May the state’s communications would preference “bites” over “attacks” based on social research, three scientists attending the meeting have told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. . . .

In NSW, the Department of Primary Industries has also gradually moved from dubbing shark-human contacts as “attacks” in its annual reports. It has worked closely with Bite Club, a support group for survivors to inform its language.

“NSW DPI is respectful that each incident is best described by the individual involved,” a spokeswoman said. “DPI generally refers to ‘incidents’ or ‘interactions’ in our formal shark reporting.”

And according to the New York Times:

Don’t Call Them ‘Shark Attacks,’ Scientists Say

In recent years, researchers and wildlife officials in Australia and the United States have adopted terms like “bites,” “incidents” and “encounters.” They wish the public would, too. . . .

Shark scientists have long called for less sensational language, saying that they are not trying to police anyone’s speech. Rather, they said, they want to change the public’s perception about animals whose population has plummeted by 71 percent since 1970, largely from overfishing. The disappearance of sharks threatens to upend marine ecosystems and critical sources of food, they say.

Officials in some U.S. and Australian states were careful to say that they had chosen their language for precision and not because of political correctness or pressure from activists.

“I can understand the sort of pushback to what we’re talking about, as a shift to kind of comical euphemism,” said Catherine Macdonald, a marine conservation biologist and the director of the Field School, a research institute in South Florida. “But I think that some of the shifts being described are actually a push toward greater accuracy and detail.”

Dr. Macdonald and other scientists said that shark bites should be described as bites, but that context matters. There are more than 500 species of shark — small and colossal, glowing and roaming — and people meet them swimming, fishing, surfing and doing any number of other activities.

“There’s a real disconnect between the human imagination of shark attacks and the reality of it,” said Toby Daly-Engel, the director of the Florida Tech Shark Conservation Lab. “A lot of what’s called a shark attack in society is actually provoked by humans.”

With all due respect to the sharks’ PR department, they’re still attacks

If you want people to avoid sharks, you describe the dangers in provocative terms. Are you afraid of a “negative encounter” with a shark? Or are you afraid of a shark attack? Sharks provoke fear, as they should.

I’m sure that bears and mountain lions aren’t motivated by anger or hatred when they interact with humans. But they’re still dangerous and you should still avoid them. If one mauled you, I think it would be fair to call it an attack.

If your main goal is to preserve shark populations, I can see how calling these interactions “negative encounters” or just “bites” might serve your goal. And I can see how that language would make sense to you.

All these articles about whether they’re called attacks are probably helping your cause.

I’m sorry you think sharks got a bad name. But rebranding shark attacks isn’t the answer.

If you don’t agree, bite me.

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  1. Agree. Seems to be a trend. Too many want to change the words we use.

    “Birthing Person” Conjugator just doesn’t have the same spring to it.

  2. I don’t live near sharks, but I do live near bears and it is very important to make noobs from the city understand that every unpleasant human-bear interaction is the human’s fault. If you are between a mother bear and her cubs, she is not attacking you; she is defending her family. You are the attacker, even if you don’t know it. To keep yourself safe living around bears, you need to avoid them. To avoid them you need to understand them and their behaviors. Understanding starts from a place of respect. Your post has little of that but it does have a lot of what you claim to be without. If you don’t like it, maul me.