What to do after the first fatal shark bite in Massachusetts since 1936: 3 experts respond

Two weeks ago, tragedy struck in New England as a boogie boarder was killed by a great white shark. Though shark bites* in general and fatal shark bites* specifically are incredibly rare (Mr. Medici was the first person killed by a great white shark in Massachusetts waters in 82 years), emotions are running high. Some Cape Cod residents are explicitly calling for a cull (targeted killing) of great white sharks.

Such a cull would be devastating for a recovering but still protected shark species, has been shown not to effectively reduce shark bites, and is opposed by shark experts around the world, but what, if anything, should local governments do instead? I’ve written in the past about alternatives to lethal shark control here and here, but not every solution is applicable for every location; local oceanographic conditions vary, as well as local laws and cultural norms. I reached out to three experts to ask what, if anything, they think should be done here. Here’s what they had to say:

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World’s largest group of shark scientists calls on AP and Reuters to resist using the phrase “shark attacks”


The American Elasmobranch Society is the world's oldest and largest professional association of shark and ray scientists

The American Elasmobranch Society is the world’s oldest and largest professional association of shark and ray scientists

The American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s largest professional organization of shark and ray scientists, has issued a resolution calling on the Associated Press Stylebook and the Reuters Style Guide  to retire the phrase “shark attack” in favor of a more accurate (and less inflammatory) wording that is scaled to represent real risk and outcomes. The AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guides are reference guides for journalists and editors which focus on, among other things, reducing the usage of inaccurate and outdated terminology. The latest AP Stylebook, for example, had more than 90 new or updated entries which include encouraging journalists and editors to a stop using terms like  “illegal immigrant“,  “ethnic cleansing” and “homophobia”.

“Shark scientists in the United States and around the world have great respect for the integrity and reporting of the Associated Press and Reuters. We hope they will act on this recommendation and update their style guides to ensure that the public gets the most accurate information in the reporting of these incidents,” said Lara Ferry, President of the American Elasmobranch Society, who sent a formal letter to the AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guide.

Currently, although “shark attack” is associated with an image of a large shark and a human fatality, the phrase  is used by the media as a catch-all to describe any encounter between a human and a shark, even those that don’t result in any physical contact whatsoever. Fully 38% of reported “shark attacks” in New South Wales, Australia from 1970-2009 resulted in no injury whatsoever. This is misleading and facilitates a perception among the public that sharks are more dangerous than they really are, a perception which has negatively impacted shark conservation and management policy.

“The accuracy in media reporting of shark bites and different human-shark interactions is especially important during the kinds of tragic periods we have seen this summer. The public deserves the best information to make sure there is no confusion between very serious and fatal shark bites and minor incidents,” said Christopher Neff, a Ph.D. student at Sydney University.

In a recent paper,  Neff and Bob Hueter of Mote Marine Lab proposed a scaled labeling typology to describe human-shark interactions. This typology covers the full range of these interactions,  including:

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The most preventable shark attack of all time?


I don’t often cover shark attacks here at Southern Fried Science. They get plenty of news coverage on their own, they’re usually not that relevant from a science and conservation perspective, and they are outside of my expertise and interests. However, some shark attack stories, such as this one, transcend “if it bleeds, it leads” fearmongering journalism and are interesting in their own right.

I’d like to preface this story by saying that shark attacks are extremely rare to begin with (you have a 1 in 5 chance of dying from heart disease and a 1 in 3.8 million chance of being killed by a shark in the United States). If you want to further minimize your chance of being attacked by a shark, most of the few attacks that occur can be prevented by simply swimming close to shore with lots of other people nearby during the day. Even though shark attacks are rare, I still don’t want to minimize the suffering of the few attack victims and their families. With these caveats out of the way, presented below is the fascinating story of what is probably the most preventable shark attack of all time.

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Check out Shark Attack Experiment Live, Friday on National Geographic Wild

This Friday, tune in to National Geographic Wild for a day of sharks! Starting at noon, they will air a series of shark documentaries culminating at 9 p.m. with “Shark Attack Experiment: Live“. This show, aired live from the shark hotspot of South Africa, aims to test some common myths about shark attacks and to “to dispel negative myths about sharks and raise public awareness that some shark species are being driven to extinction by overfishing”.  In addition to the live experiments, survivors of shark attacks will get the opportunity, while surrounded by trained shark-diving professionals, to face their fears and intentionally interact with sharks.  The whole thing will also be live-blogged, and organizers have included a social media component (Twitter #sharkattack). Check it out!

Western Australia’s sharks need your help!

Great White Shark. Image courtesy animals.NationalGeographic.com

Last week, I wrote about three current shark conservation issues, including a proposed shark cull in Western Australia. Barbara Wueringer was able to deliver her letter to Western Australian government officials on Friday, and thanks to your help, it was signed by more than 100 scientists and conservationists from all over the world.

Yesterday, however, another swimmer was killed by a shark in Western Australian waters. George Thomas Wainwright, 32, was a native of Texas who had been working on a boat in Australia. This attack, which is the third in the last two months, has resulted in renewed calls for a “shark cull”. The proposed plan would involve both an attempt to kill the specific shark responsible for killing Mr. Wainwright and a more general killing of all the sharks in the area. It is believed that the shark that killed Mr. Wainwright was a great white shark, also known as a  “white pointer” in Australia.

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Shark bites snorkeler… who happens to be my friend

On June 30th, while vacationing in the Turks and Caicos, a 28 year old man was bitten by a large shark.  This particular attack got my attention in a hurry. For the first time in my life, a friend of mine was bitten by a shark. Obviously I know some shark biologists who have been bitten while handling sharks in the field, but that isn’t what happened in this case. This victim was simply snorkeling during a vacation. He agreed to answer some of my questions about the incident, and prefers to remain anonymous.
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Were 18 foot long thresher sharks responsible for closing a New York beach?

Earlier this week, several New York state beaches were closed due to shark sightings. Fox News’ Rick Leventhal, speaking as part of Bill Hemmer’s “America’s Newsroom” show, reported on this story, claiming that “some onlookers ID’ed them as thresher sharks, they’re estimated to be about  18 feet long”. A half-eaten seal also washed up on shore nearby.

To his credit, Mr. Leventhal  attempted to play down fears about these animals, saying that “Let’s not forget that sharks live in the ocean…as long as there’s food, they’re likely to keep hanging around”. However, I was immediately skeptical of the claim that a group of 18 foot long thresher sharks were swimming slowly just a few yards offshore. A cursory review of the known biology and ecology of thresher sharks will explain my skepticism.

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Thoughts on the shark attacks in Egypt

While we were away on our December blog-cation, sharks were all over the news. Specifically, a series of shark attacks in the resort town of Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt, captured the attention of the media and of beachgoing news watchers worldwide. I normally don’t talk about shark attacks on the blog, but lots of readers have been asking me for my opinion on this incident. Fortunately, even though I was on blog-cation, the rest of the shark blog-o-sphere was hard at work covering this issue.

While it’s difficult to integrate a month’s worth of news stories after the fact, I’ll do my best to provide you with a complete picture of what happened. Please feel free to point out inaccuracies in the comments section.

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Innovative Conservation: Shark Attack Survivors Speak About Saving Sharks

Last Monday, the Pew Environment Group’s Global Shark Conservation Campaign arranged for a brilliant PR stunt – they arranged for survivors of shark attacks to speak about shark conservation outside of the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Though very few people are ever bitten by sharks, many fear them, which makes it difficult to generate public support for their conservation. Having survivors of shark attacks speak about the need for international legal protection for sharks is a great move. As participant Debbie Salamone said, “If a group like us can see the value in saving sharks, can’t everyone?” The Pew organizers also made sure that this event was covered by the press- dozens of friends sent me this Yahoo News article, and several event participants were featured on CBS’ the Early Show.

The timing couldn’t be better. According to the Underwater Times:

“U.N. member countries have an opportunity this week and next to address this problem when they refine their annual resolution on sustainable fisheries and review the Millennium Development Goals, which include a target to reduce biodiversity loss. This is also the International Year of Biodiversity. At a press conference, meetings with U.N. missions and a panel discussion at the U.N., the survivors will ask that delegates use these opportunities to advance shark conservation.”

I hope this helps. At the very least, it resulted in some positive media coverage for sharks.