Each year as the weather warms, crowds of families and tourists flock to the beaches. People sometimes don’t realize the risk they take when they enter the ocean, a vast aquatic habitat. Newsrooms in coastal communities are well aware that when humans and wildlife interact, the results can be tragic – especially when sharks make an appearance. Even a minor run-in with a shark can send someone to the emergency room for surgery and stitches.
While shark attacks are very rare, reports of shark attacks are on the rise. They have more than tripled in recent decades — from a total of 157 reports worldwide between 1970 and 1979 to a combined 661 reports from 2000 to 2009, according to the Florida Program for Shark Research (FPSR), which maintains a database of known attacks dating back to the mid-1500s. It’s important to note the increase is partly the result of an improved reporting system. But research also indicates human population growth, increased interest in aquatic recreational activities and changes in weather and water quality may play a role.
In 2016, the FPSR’s International Shark Attack File confirmed 118 shark attacks worldwide. Most unprovoked attacks occurred in the U.S., with Florida leading the country for the most bites – 32 in 2016, compared to 30 in 2015. In the Sunshine State, sharks typically move inshore in the spring and summer. Worldwide, four people died in 2016 (two people in Australia and two in New Caledonia) after unprovoked attacks.
Below, Journalist’s Resource has rounded up numerous academic studies to help journalists write about one of the earth’s oldest predators and put shark behavior and trends into context. Included in this collection are studies that examine shark-bite injuries and the media’s portrayal of sharks and shark attacks. Some other helpful resources are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shark research organizations at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and University of Washington.
George H. Burgess, the FPSR’s director, is widely recognized as an international expert in shark research.
Hotspots, factors affecting bites
“Global Shark Attack Hotspots: Identifying Underlying Factors Behind Increased Unprovoked Shark Bite Incidence”
Chapman, Blake K.; McPhee, Daryl. Ocean & Coastal Management, 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2016.09.010.
Abstract: “Unprovoked shark bites remain a rare, unlikely occurrence; however, shark bite incidence is increasing world-wide. In an effort to understand why shark bite incidence is increasing, we examine recent trends in unprovoked shark bite statistics and other media from the six global shark bite ‘hotspots’ — the United States, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Reunion Island and the Bahamas — and review recent literature that identifies potential causative factors that may contribute to rising shark bite incidence. Increases in shark bite incidence are likely attributable to rises in human population, as well as other causative factors, including habitat destruction/modification, water quality, climate change and anomalous weather patterns and the distribution/abundance of prey. Our analysis shows that increases are likely the result of a set of conditions that disrupts the natural balance of an area at a local or regional level and increases the probability of shark-human interaction. We also present recommendations for future management of shark-human interaction.”
“Do White Shark Bites on Surfers Reflect Their Attack Strategies on Pinnipeds [Seals]?”
Ritter, Erich; Quester; Alexandra. Journal of Marine Biology, 2016. DOI: 10.1155/2016/9539010.
Abstract: “The theory of mistaken identity states that sharks, especially white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, mistake surfers for pinnipeds when looking at them from below and thus bite them erroneously. Photographs of surfer wounds and board damage were interpreted with special emphasis on shark size, wound severity and extent of damage to a board. These were compared with the concurrent literature on attack strategies of white sharks on pinnipeds and their outcomes. The results show that the majority of damage to surfers and their boards is at best superficial-to-moderate in nature and does not reflect the level of damage needed to immobilize or stun a pinniped. It is further shown that the size distribution of sharks biting surfers differs from that in pinnipeds. The results presented show that the theory of mistaken identity, where white sharks erroneously mistake surfers for pinnipeds, does not hold true and should be rejected.”
“Characteristic Features of Injuries Due to Shark Attacks: A Review of 12 Cases”
Ihama, Yoko; et al. Legal Medicine, 2009. DOI: doi:10.1016/j.legalmed.2009.06.002.
Abstract: “Shark attacks on humans might not occur as often as is believed and the characteristic features of shark injuries on corpses have not been extensively reviewed. We describe the characteristic features of shark injuries on 12 corpses. The analysis of these injuries might reveal the motivation behind the attacks and/or the shark species involved in the attack. Gouge marks on the bones are evidence of a shark attack, even if the corpse is decomposed. Severance of the body part at the joints without a fracture was found to be a characteristic feature of shark injuries.”
“Shark Attack: Review of 86 Consecutive Cases”
Woolgar, Justin D.; et al. Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care: 2001. DOI: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-16-3462.
Results: “The majority of victims (n = 68 [81 percent]) had relatively minor injuries that required simple primary suture. Those patients (n = 16 [19 percent]) with more extensive limb lacerations longer than 20 cm or with soft-tissue loss of more than one myofascial compartment were associated with higher morbidity and limb loss. In 8 of the 10 fatalities, death occurred as a result of exsanguinating hemorrhage from a limb vascular injury.”
Improving public safety
“Do PSAs Take a Bite Out of Shark Week? The Effects of Juxtaposing Environmental Messages with Violent Images of Shark Attacks”
Myrick, Jessica Gall; Evans, Suzannah D. Science Communication, 2014. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547014547159.
Abstract: “A between-subjects experiment (N = 531) studied the juxtaposition of programming from the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week with shark conservation public service announcements (PSAs). Cultivation and priming theories provided a conceptual framework for testing how shark-on-human violence paired with different types of PSAs (celebrity endorser present or not) influence audiences’ emotional reactions, threat perceptions, willingness to support conservation, and intentions to seek information. Findings reveal that shark-on-human violence and presence of a PSA influence fear reactions and perceived threat of shark attacks. Findings related to conservation support, information seeking, and the role of previous Shark Week viewing and demographics are also discussed.”
“Australian and U.S. News Media Portrayal of Sharks and Their Conservation”
Muter, Bret A.; Gore, Meredith L.; Gledhill, Katie S; Lamont, Christopher; Huveneers, Charlie. Conservation Biology, 2013. DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01952.x.
Abstract: “Investigation of the social framing of human-shark interactions may provide useful strategies for integrating social, biological, and ecological knowledge into national and international policy discussions about shark conservation. One way to investigate social opinion and forces related to sharks and their conservation is through the media’s coverage of sharks. We conducted a content analysis of 300 shark-related articles published in 20 major Australian and U.S. newspapers from 2000 to 2010. Shark attacks were the emphasis of over half the articles analyzed, and shark conservation was the primary topic of 11 percent of articles. Significantly more Australian articles than U.S. articles treated shark attacks (χ2 = 3.862; Australian 58 percent vs. U.S. 47 percent) and shark conservation issues (χ2 = 6.856; Australian 15 percent vs. U.S. 11 percent) as the primary article topic and used politicians as the primary risk messenger (i.e., primary person or authority sourced in the article) (χ2 = 7.493; Australian 8 percent vs. U.S. 1 percent). However, significantly more U.S. articles than Australian articles discussed sharks as entertainment (e.g., subjects in movies, books, and television; χ2 = 15.130; U.S. 6 percent vs. Australian 1 percent) and used scientists as the primary risk messenger (χ2 = 5.333; U.S. 25 percent vs. Australian 15 percent). Despite evidence that many shark species are at risk of extinction, we found that most media coverage emphasized the risks sharks pose to people. To the extent that media reflects social opinion, our results highlight problems for shark conservation. We suggest that conservation professionals purposefully and frequently engage with the media to highlight the rarity of shark attacks, discuss preventative measures water users can take to reduce their vulnerability to shark encounters, and discuss conservation issues related to local and threatened species of sharks. When integrated with biological and ecological data, social-science data may help generate a more comprehensive perspective and inform conservation practice.”
“The Effect of Background Music in Shark Documentaries on Viewers’ Perceptions of Sharks”
Nosal, Andrew P.; Keenan, Elizabeth A.; Hastings, Philip A.; Gneezy, Ayelet. PLoS ONE, 2016. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0159279.
Abstract: “Despite the ongoing need for shark conservation and management, prevailing negative sentiments marginalize these animals and legitimize permissive exploitation. These negative attitudes arise from an instinctive, yet exaggerated fear, which is validated and reinforced by disproportionate and sensationalistic news coverage of shark ‘attacks’ and by highlighting shark-on-human violence in popular movies and documentaries. In this study, we investigate another subtler, yet powerful factor that contributes to this fear: the ominous background music that often accompanies shark footage in documentaries. Using three experiments, we show that participants rated sharks more negatively and less positively after viewing a 60-second video clip of swimming sharks set to ominous background music, compared to participants who watched the same video clip set to uplifting background music, or silence. This finding was not an artifact of soundtrack alone because attitudes toward sharks did not differ among participants assigned to audio-only control treatments. This is the first study to demonstrate empirically that the connotative attributes of background music accompanying shark footage affect viewers’ attitudes toward sharks. Given that nature documentaries are often regarded as objective and authoritative sources of information, it is critical that documentary filmmakers and viewers are aware of how the soundtrack can affect the interpretation of the educational content.”
“Killing Sharks: The Media’s Role in Public and Political Response to Fatal Human-Shark Interactions”
McCagh, Christine; Sneddon, Joanne; Blache, Dominque. Marine Policy, 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.marpol.2015.09.016.
Abstract: “In 2013-14, the Western Australian Government deployed drum lines to catch and kill sharks perceived to be a threat to public safety. This policy decision sparked considerable controversy and debate which played out in the media. There have been limited studies examining the role of media discourses in the development of shark management policies. This study shows that media reporting reflected the unidirectional correlation between the public and policy makers; while there appeared to be a correlation between public pressure and the decision to deploy drum lines, there was no association between the culling program and public support. The reflective role the media played in the drum line debate was evident in their use of prescriptive and emotive language about human-shark incidents, and the use of two opposing frames; anthropocentric and conservation. Combined, these results suggest that the public policy makers need to rethink their approach to developing shark hazard mitigation programs through ongoing, meaningful engagement with the general public, scientists and stake holders, if they wish to garner public support.”