Blood in the water: sharks and the Australian media

Sharks in the news

The Australian media loves sharks. From harrowing stories of lucky escapes to tragic fatalities, the news is constantly flooded with tales of these predators. In this realm, the shark is positioned as being cold, monstrous and blood-thirsty – the perfect villain for any media story.

Recently, it seems there has been an increase in fatal shark attacks. Innocent teenagers in Western Australia to seasoned surfers, are being targeted by these beasts from the deep – watching, ambushing, killing. Or so we are led to believe.

Eveline Rijksen and Ryan Keith are both biologists, ecologists and PhD candidates from Sydney. They are passionate about understanding animals and educating the broader society about the intricacies of Australian ecosystems.

“The narrative of sharks in the media is very different to the biological role that they play,” Ms Rijksen says, “yes, they hunt and they eat, but only what they need. What’s in the media is completely different. In the media, they are portrayed as these hellish creatures that are out to kill people, which is so far from the truth”.

It seems then, that the story the media feeds us about sharks is a lot closer to fiction than it perhaps should be. Jaws was just a movie, after all.

Ms Rijksen continues: “First and foremost, sharks do not eat people. They might mistake people as prey, and it’s always a mistake, but they don’t actually hunt people, they don’t eat people, and they don’t see people as their natural prey at all”.

The rhetoric of the ‘attack’

The shark ‘attack’ is a concept created by humans. It is emotionally and politically charged and speaks to one facet of human nature – fear.

Dr Chris Neff has written about this exact trend, noting that sharks are framed in a world “where accidents are intentional, bites are ‘attacks’, and animal behaviour is criminal behaviour”.

Mr Keith agrees: “It’s a linguistic thing,” he states, “if it’s an ‘attack’, it’s a very different thing to an ‘encounter’. When an animal is seen through the lens of ‘attack’, you have an unequal power relationship whereby they are in control, they are aggressive, and they are coming for you”.

In reality, however, shark attacks may be better framed as shark accidents – with the shark being the one who made the mistake.

“The moment a shark bites into a human, they realise it’s not the prey they thought it was” notes Ms Rijksen. Perhaps afterwards the shark will circle to investigate, but they won’t ‘attack’.

This tendency presents an interesting paradox in what we know about sharks. MS Rijksen elaborates: “We all know that sharks can detect blood from kilometres away. So, if sharks were really out there to eat us, you wouldn’t find any body that was bitten by a shark, because the moment there is blood in the water it would cause a frenzy. But that doesn’t happen”.

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Australian Shark Attack File (Infographic: Corinne Parkes)

Shark statistics 

The Australian Shark Attack File (ASAF) has been compiling data on Australian shark encounters for over three decades. Run by the Taronga Conservation Society, this resource records all human-shark incidents around the country.

According to this resource, there have been 47 unprovoked, fatal shark attacks in the past five decades in Australia, averaging less than one per year. Comparing that to the estimated one million annual beach visits sheds some light on how rare these incidents really are.

Regardless, the dominant discussion surrounding sharks focusses on their increasing attacks, their increasing numbers, or their tendency to go ‘rogue’.

The ‘rogue’ shark, however, is little more than a Hollywood character.

“The idea of the rogue shark,” Mr Keith points out, “the shark that is out there actively searching for us and has a taste for human flesh, is a narrative. And narrative here is the correct term, because it is a work of fiction. It plays into our fears and we respond emotionally to that. It sells”.

Australian policy

Sharks sell. They sell newspapers, novels, films and now, policies. Reacting to the few fatal incidents that saturate the media, politicians have enforced measures to deter sharks from our beaches.

Shark nets, drum lines and culling (which are, it should be noted, all lethal measures) have been implemented around Australia, causing fierce debate and protest. On one side are those who support these measures, who believe we should be putting our human swimmers ahead of our finned foes.

The other side of the debate highlights how ineffective these technologies are, and how they can be detrimental to a marine ecosystem. This is the argument that both Ms Rijksen and Mr Keith stand behind.

“In the absence of any evidence that they work, there are very few reasons why we should be supportive of the policies in place,” Mr Keith notes.

The issue with nets, drum lines or culling, and one of the fundamental ideas that opposes the government-sanctioned control measures, is the detrimental affect they have on other marine life.

Mr Keith notes that by-catch (where other animals are caught in shark nets or drum lines) is the most damning evidence against shark control measures. “You’d have dolphins, whales, turtles, dugongs and so forth – some of which are already endangered, getting caught in these nets”.

Recently, nets were removed from the beach at Ballina NSW (which had been earmarked as a shark hotspot) in order to protect migrating whales. This decision sparked intense debate, with reports of furious locals and politicians, who believe there are sharks lurking, waiting to attack the next surfer they see.

Most evidence, however, suggests that shark control measures have very little impact on sharks attack at all.

MS Rijksen continues this thought: “As a biologist, a scientist – or any rational person, all you see when looking at these measures are political people trying to sew fear, and then putting these measures into place to win votes. The sharks themselves have nothing to do with it”.

While science continually provides answers to the questions we have of sharks, the hysteria created within the media drowns out rational voices. “If only we would listen to these answers,” Mr Keith says, “and actually adjust how we treat these animals to reflect their actual behaviours in the wild. To better reflect what they are”.

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