Progress in How We Think About Shark Bites
Over the past two years, my research has asked the question: how do the public and governments respond to shark bites? I believe this is important because the history of the human-shark relationship has been defined by these events. The way we look at sharks, shark conservation, the beach and beach safety have been governed by the realities and myths around shark bites. For more than 2,000 years humans have feared, killed and stereotyped sharks around the world based on stories from fishermen, books, news reports and beach communities. My research puts these perceptions and policies under a spotlight to see if there are safer and more responsible ways to think about and manage the water we share with sharks in the future.
My doctoral research at the University of Sydney has looked at an evidence-based review of policy responses to shark bites in Australia, South Africa and the United States. While there is more work to be done, the public and political dialogue is changing as more critical information comes to light. For instance, in the past 24 months I have worked on 3 documentaries that have included my research as well as 4 television news programs, 20 print or online newspapers or magazines and had 19 mentions or interviews on radio programs. In addition, I filmed documentary interviews earlier this year that will be appearing on BBC4, Channel 10 (Australia), Discovery USA and the Discovery Channel Canada. Again, my goal is to help make beach-going safer and to improve shark conservation by reducing shark bites, because nothing is more helpful to shark conservation in my opinion than decreasing the number of serious and fatal shark bites on humans. But this requires educating the public, acknowledging the emotion of these incidents and challenging myths or stereotypes with evidence. To begin thinking differently about shark bites I often say, “we are in the way, not on the menu.”
Media, conferences and academic publications have played an important role is building this dialogue, but everything rests on the evidence. As a social scientist my task is to work in an interdisciplinary way alongside natural scientists (including biologists, ecologists and zoologists) as well as with the public and media. I do this by trying to always ask tough questions, set high standards and follow the data. So in each of my discussions I build my analysis around the facts.
A recap of some of the popular media pieces includes Agence France-Presse television, BBC radio, ABC (Australia) radio Canberra, the Surfing and Sharks Documentary: , the Cape Town Times, ABC Australia’s 7:30 Report television program, Perth Sunday Times, New Scientist Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Washington Post.
Across the academic disciplines, I have submitted my work to peer-reviewed journals. In January, 2012 the journal of Coastal Management published my first article entitled, “Australian Beach Safety and the Politics of Shark Attacks.” Marine Policy has accepted my second article and I am excited to see that published in 2012 or 2013.
I have also been fortunate to present my research at two scientific conferences. The first, in May 2011, was the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) in Victoria Canada. I spoke before approximately 30 scientists on the topic of lessons learned regarding beach safety and shark conservation responses from the Australian case study of the shark bite incidents from 1929, 1935 and 2009. And last December, I presented before approximately 60 scientists at the International Conference for Conservation Biology (ICCB) in Auckland, New Zealand. I spoke about how shark bite response policies can inform carnivore conservation managers. The goal in attending this conference was to better connect the strategies of human-wildlife conflict managers with shark bite incidents.
The conversation with media outlets and academic venues reflects a growing openness to contest the foundation of shark bite and shark “attack” attitudes. But the success of any of these depends on the public. And I would note that that the public appears to be ready for this new conversation about shark bites.
I have conducted two public surveys and both are encouraging. A March, 2011 survey of attendees (before and after the discussion) at a “Re-think the shark” forum in Sydney found that:
- 51% changed their opinion to be more supportive of getting rid of beach nets;
- 3% changed their opinion to be more supportive of keeping beach nets; and
- 44% stayed the same on their thoughts on beach nets.
This data is beginning the process of developing a baseline of public opinion regarding sharks and beach safety programs in the three locations. I also conducted a pilot survey of Cape Town residents (at Fish Hoek and Muizenberg beaches) in June 2011 and October 2011 after a serious shark bite incident on 28 September.
The Cape Town data is the first social science research of its kind ever collected. This is being drafted for publication presently and the results will review the degree to which shark bite change public perceptions about sharks and beach safety management. In all, what this research has shown is that there is new evidence to support a change in the dialogue and thinking around shark bites and that the public is ready for this conversation. This is good news for safer swimming and for sharks.
For my part, this research will continue and I could not be more appreciative of the support of the Save Our Seas Foundation. This international conversation would not be possible without their support and I am grateful for the efforts, support and the help from their incredible staff and volunteers.