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Not shark 'attack', it's an 'accident' + Video

by Media Services on 21 Jan 2012
If you’re bitten, it’s a case of mistaken identity. James Cook University http://cms.jcu.edu.au/
The concept of the 'rogue' shark, seeking revenge on its human nemesis is nothing more than Hollywood fodder, say experts, including Christopher Neff, a researcher at the University of Sydney carrying out the world's first PhD on the politics of 'shark bite incidents'.

He says we should drop the term 'attack' and all the other emotive language as sensationalist and misleading.

'Swimmers are in the way, not on the menu,' he says. 'There is no evidence any shark species develops a taste for human flesh.'

Neff does not want to downplay the tragedy of serious or fatal encounters with these apex predators of the sea, particularly during this summer of heavy rain, when swimmers will are warned to avoid bathing at dawn, dusk or in cloudy conditions.

'Shark bites are scary,'continues Neff, but persistent myths and sensationalism can lead to ineffective, political solutions, such as the recent authorisation of a shark hunt in Western Australia after three deaths, which would have made no swimmer safer if it had gone ahead.

What is needed from scientists and authorities is straight talking and good information, such as the facts that shark numbers increase in summer in Parramatta River and Sydney Harbour, and people shouldn't swim there for three days after heavy rain because sewage attracts sharks.

Neff, an American, said it was wrong for incidents always to be described as attacks, when bites are often defensive or done out of curiosity.



About 13 per cent of so-called shark attacks in NSW, on Australia's east coast are by wobbegongs, for example.(a carpet shark species that does not attack unless prevoked) 'That means someone was stepping on it or pestering it,' says Neff, adding that before the 'rogue shark' concept, shark attacks were often referred to as 'shark accidents'.

And after some fatalities in the 1920s, a NSW government committee nevertheless concluded 'sharks do not patrol the beaches on the off-chance of occasionally devouring human prey'.

But the notion of rogue sharks, made internationally famous by the movie Jaws, has persisted. 'And now we see it in a policy response in 2011 [with the proposed hunt].'

Humans are of little interest, according to Nuff, since they provide low nutrition. If sharks wanted to attack people, there would be many more bites, given the increasing numbers of swimmers.

Amy Smoothey, a shark researcher with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, said that on Australia Day last year there were seven tagged mature bull sharks in Sydney Harbour, sharing the waters with thousands of people, including those in a harbour swim event. Yet there were no incidents or reported sightings.

Her tagging research is aimed at providing the public with more information about where the bull sharks are most likely to be.

That sharks visit the harbour indicates it is a healthy waterway. 'We should be grateful for their presence,' she says.

Sharks have killed one person a year in Australia, on average, for the past 50 years.

Worldwide, there is increased interest in shark 'incidents', with five encounters in the past week, all in places where the predators are unusual.

Marine scientists said the incidents in the Seychelles and four others in Russia and Puerto Rico - all areas not usually known to attract aggressive sharks - could be a result of warmer waters caused by climate change.

But they all agree science does not yet fully understand the behaviour and movement of sharks.
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