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It’s summer, so it must be shark season!

“As soon as the circumstance became known to the inhabitants, a number of persons resolved upon attempting the capture of the shark…”

– The Moreton Bay Courier, 1847, following an attack on James Stewart in Brisbane.

“The hunt is intensifying for a great white shark suspected of killing an American diver off Western Australia’s south-west coast’

The Age, 2011, following an attack on George Wainwright, at Rottnest Island.

While the language may have changed, the message stays the same, like John Wayne in a Hollywood western, we’re gonna round up the posse and seek revenge.

With the summer not far away, our desire to get to the beach increases, and just as night follows day, to the media another yearly season has begun – shark season.

If you plan on letting the seasonal shark-mania in the media ruin your ocean experience this summer, then don’t get in the car, don’t go out and enjoy the rain of a late afternoon thunderstorm, don’t ride your bike.

I think you get the point – the chances of you getting bitten by a shark is minuscule when compared to the risks we take getting out of bed every morning.

You only need to look at the annual spring shark warning stories, usually started by a human-shark encounter such as an attack or sighting, to see it is clear that sharks are often misrepresented in the media.

Without a publicist or press-agent to push its cause and get positive publicity, sharks find themselves not only threatened by overfishing; there is a hostile class of opportunists such as shark-spotter service operators, netting and bait-hooking contractors, and anthropocentric speciesists who believe their dominion over nature extends to culling and driving sharks away if necessary.

According the International Shark Attack File in Florida, which along with the Australian Shark Attack File is the most quoted source of human-shark encounters, despite the amount of attacks increasing, the instances of fatalities are fewer.

There are a few explanations needed here; one, there was a time in the 60s and 70s where the Shark Attack File was dormant, so collection and analysis of data was not as rigorous, and two; the spike in shark attack numbers relate to the hysteria surrounding human-shark encounters combined with new technology.

As soon as word gets out, via social media – facebook status’, twitter, or the good ol’ telephone, the media also smell blood and rush to sign a victim of a great white attack to an exclusive deal, even before the shark has been identified.

I think the take home point is; even if you were “attacked’ – the legitimate use of that term is dubious at best, a downright lie at worst – you will probably survive with some minor cuts and a “stay out of the water for a week’ command from your doctor.

Now, in the spirit of the annual “how to avoid a shark attack’ lists, I have compiled a “what to do if you have a shark encounter’ list:

  1. Enjoy it. It may be the only time you ever see one of these amazing animals (besides wrapped in newsprint on a Friday night, but we’ll talk about overfishing another day), keep your distance, take a deep breath and relax, you are seeing millions of years of evolution in motion.

Remember, the ocean isn’t exclusively ours, when we enjoy the ocean we are sharing it with millions of other creatures. There are a lot more pressing water issues to worry about than sharks.

Update:

University of Sydney PhD candidate Christopher Neff is carrying out a study of the politics of human-shark interactions. Neff emphasizes that current statistics are not telling the whole story, that the public looks at shark attack statistics and can’t “tell scratches from fatalities, boats from people, or wobbegongs from great whites.’ Interestingly, even fatalities were often termed “shark accident’ up until the 1930s when the now discredited, Jaws-inspiring, rogue shark theory was introduced by Australian surgeon Victor Coppleson.

Ken Meese

Ken Meese

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