On the beaches of Western Australia, by California’s crashing waves and in sight of Hawaii’s blue depths, “shark attacks” are slowly disappearing, at least as a phrase used by researchers and officials who have been rethinking how to describe the moments when sharks and humans meet.
Last week, two Australian states drew swift mockery when The Sydney Morning Herald reported that they were moving away from the phrase in favor of terms like “bites,” “incidents” and “encounters.”
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% 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.”
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.”
People step on small sharks, which turn around and snap. Divers — and, in at least one case, an Instagram model — have gotten too close, and sharks have reacted. Unprovoked bites sometimes take place in murky water, Daly-Engel said, as when a white shark mistakes a surfer for a seal.
But bites are extraordinarily rare, she said — globally, there are about 70 to 80 unprovoked bites a year, and about five deaths — and sharks usually flee after physical contact with a person.
“A ‘shark attack’ is a story of intent,” said Christopher Pepin-Neff, a lecturer in public policy at the University of Sydney who has studied human perceptions of sharks. “But sharks don’t know what people are. They don’t know when you’re in the boat. They don’t know what a propeller is. It’s not an attack.”
In Australia, the Queensland government offers guidance to minimize “your risk of a negative encounter with a shark.” Western Australia uses “bite” and “incident” in its alert system and sometimes “shark interaction,” usually when there is no bite.
Most unprovoked shark bites are reported in the United States, where the shift in language began in earnest within the past 10 years. For example, fish and wildlife officials in California have tracked injuries, deaths and “incidents” since about 2017 for cases where a shark touches people or their surfboard, kayak or other item. In Hawaii, officials have used “human-shark encounters” for nearly a decade.
A Hawaii government website notes that “dog bites” are called “dog attacks” in only extraordinary cases. Dan Dennison, a spokesman for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said that whenever he had been asked why a shark attacked someone, “My response is always, ‘Until we can interview the shark we have no idea.’”
One exception to the rebranding trend appears to be Florida, where the Fish and Wildlife Commission has a section on its website about “shark attacks.” A spokeswoman, Carly Jones, said that the commission “does not have involvement with this topic.”
Whatever term is used, shark scientists stressed that sharks are wild animals and should be treated with caution and respect. The risk of a serious bite is extraordinarily small — people are more likely to die from a bee sting, sunstroke or bicycle accident — but shark bites can cause devastating harm.
“For those who have lived experience, a shark bite is a deeply traumatic event, and they may feel they were attacked,” said Leonardo Guida, a scientist with the Australian Marine Conservation Society. Talking about the language, he said, “opens an opportunity to take into account what they experienced and ultimately determine what actually happened.”
Most of the time when humans are near sharks, though, nothing happens. People are often oblivious.
“If you’ve been in the ocean there was probably a shark near you, and it probably knew you were there even if you didn’t know it was there,” said David Shiffman, a marine biologist and the author of the book “Why Sharks Matter.” Macdonald and a team recently discovered a great hammerhead nursery off the coast of Miami, for instance — the first one found on the Atlantic coast of the United States.
The shift away from the word “attack” has drawn some criticism, including from the founder of the Bite Club, a support group for survivors. On Friday, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that if the new terms were adopted, “when a great white chews your leg off it’s a ‘negative interaction.’”
But Shiffman said the new terms were “not about PC culture run amok.”
“This is about being accurate without being inflammatory,” he said. “Inflammatory coverage makes people afraid of sharks, and might potentially mean less support for their conservation and potentially support for their extermination.”
Thanks to the movie “Jaws” and popular culture like it, sharks got “the bad end of the PR stick,” said Jasmin Graham, the president of Minorities in Shark Scientists and a marine biologist at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. “Everyone has this collective negative reaction to them,” she said, “and that’s rooted in the media we consume.”
Chris Lowe, a professor and the director of the Shark Lab at California State University in Long Beach, compared the public’s perception of sharks to the popular 19th-century image of whales as “demonic animals” that “kill people.”
By the 1970s, when whales were hunted nearly to extinction, the public’s view had shifted radically. People could see footage of whales being harpooned, and the message spread that whales were mammals that nursed their young and communicated vocally through clicks, chirps and songs.
It amounted to “the best rebranding ever,” Lowe said.
“We have tons of footage of sharks and people together and people aren’t being bitten,” he said. “So why should we be afraid?”
Still, scientists were not unanimous about the importance of changing public perception.
“Will changing the name to ‘shark encounters’ really help the general public have a different perspective? I don’t think so,” said Gavin Naylor, the director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, which distinguishes between provoked and unprovoked bites. “There’s people in the general public that call them ‘shark attacks’ all the time and they’re environmentalists. It’s just a phrase that everybody uses.”
Far more important than language, Naylor said, was a focus on regulation and stopping overfishing.
Graham said sharks needed both the public and governments on their side, and soon.
“We’re losing sharks so fast that by the time we realize how bad it is, it’s pretty bad,” she said. “When did we need to start worrying about it? The answer is yesterday. So we should start doing things today.”