Our irrational fear of sharks

Originally published in the New Zealand Listener in January 2018.

This summer, we’ve had a tragic mix of drownings and boating accidents, but what’s the story with sharks?

So far anyway, there have been no shark bites. We did have a scare. On the afternoon of December 17, the Herald and Stuff news websites reported that a swimmer had been attacked by a shark at Riversdale Beach.
The long, white-sand surf beach dominates the tiny Wairarapa Coast township. Its social heart is the Riversdale Beach Surf Life Saving Club, which was recently rebuilt from the ground up with the support of residents and those, like me, who visit from Wellington and other lower North Island towns for weekend getaways.

I was swimming out past the breakers on the Sunday before the attack. The thought of a predator biting a swimmer at my favourite beach filled me with dread.

But the headlines were wrong. It was not a shark attack on a swimmer but a diver searching for paua who stepped on a stingray basking in the shallows at low tide.

Reece Atkinson, 31, was hit in the thigh by the stingray’s spine, receiving a painful gash. He was airlifted to Wellington Hospital. As the details of the incident became clear, locals shared their relief on Facebook.

Stingrays are close cousins of sharks, but they rarely trouble humans and symbolise something completely different in the public’s consciousness from the most feared of all predators inhabiting our waters, the great white shark. An attack by a great white would have cleared the beach for the summer.

Humans collectively spend billions of hours in the water each year, but only four fatal shark attacks were reported globally in 2016.

New Zealand’s last fatal shark attack was five years ago, when 47-year-old film-maker Adam Strange was attacked by at least one 3-4m shark, probably a great white, while swimming between Muriwai Beach and Maori Bay, north-west of Auckland.

He died of rapid large-volume blood loss resulting from the bite wounds. His death brought to 12 the estimated number of fatal shark attacks in this country’s recorded history.

Last year, 379 people died in road accidents. There is no end of statistical comparisons you can make to illustrate how remote the chance is of meeting Strange’s fate. You are more likely to die choking, falling out of bed or, yes, being struck by lightning.

The fear factor

Yet here and all over the world, people continue to fear shark attacks out of all proportion to the threat they actually pose.

Queensland-based shark scientist Blake Chapman, in Shark Attacks, a new book examining the myths, misunderstandings and fear around sharks, puts that down to two major factors: frequent and sensationalist media coverage of shark attacks and the lingering influence of Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 film, Jaws.

“Jaws was a massive shock to the system, as there was nothing like it before,” says Chapman of the movie that spawned three sequels and a lingering influence traceable all the way to last year’s Sharknado 5: Global Swarming. “Suddenly, people who had never given a thought to sharks, let alone had any sort of interaction with these animals, now had a visually imprinted, conscious reason to fear and hate them.”

The shark in Jaws was not just a terrifying killer but also a seemingly rational enemy, the ultimate movie villain. The result has been “devastating” for shark conservation, argues Chapman, as well as for our understanding of them.

Analysis of media coverage of sharks shows it to be overwhelmingly negative, focusing on attacks rather than the health of shark populations or even the considerable value they offer to tourism and medical research.

In Australia, which had two of the four fatal shark attacks in 2016, frequent sightings, traumatic encounters and furious debate around shark-mitigation measures such as nets and drumlines (baited aquatic traps used to lure and capture large sharks) mean people are regularly exposed to negative mainstream-media stories about sharks.

One publication alone, the West Australian, which has an audience of a million, followed each of the seven fatal shark attacks in Western Australia between August 2010 and 2014 with an average of 45 articles.

Shark attacks generate less coverage on this side of the Tasman, but the Riversdale false alarm speaks to the media’s impulse to run shark-attack headlines. One veteran newsman, NZME managing editor Shayne Currie, who oversees operations at the New Zealand Herald and NewstalkZB, is notorious for his love of shark stories.

In an online Q&A chat with readers that he held in 2013, six months after the Herald covered Strange’s death, Currie acknowledged his shark obsession.

“Sharks can be newsworthy, but I’m the first to admit we may have overblown it in recent years,” he wrote.

The Herald duly put the Riversdale stingray attack on the front page – two days after it occurred.

A shift in the tone of coverage to portray sharks as an important part of the marine ecosystem to be respected rather than feared would help, says Chapman.

But we are also fundamentally wired to fear dangerous predators, an evolutionary feature that has served us well.

“We rely on fear and our emotions to protect us,” she says. “That’s great when we are in the water and we need to get out of a bad situation. The rest of the time, we need to rely on logic.”

A statistically illogical fear of shark attacks therefore makes some sense. Less logical are the learnt fears we adopt, as kids observing our overprotective parents, as news consumers reading gruesome accounts of shark attacks and as movie buffs watching late-night reruns of Jaws.

Once bitten

Television got Chapman hooked on sharks as a teenager growing up in the US. In particular, the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week series has been running since 1987 and Chapman counts it as the type of media coverage of sharks that fosters understanding rather than fear.

A shark has bitten her once – it was a single Band-Aid job.

“I can’t remember feeling anything at the time, but I knew I had been bitten,” says Chapman, who was working in a Queensland aquarium after completing her PhD when she tried to secure a blacktip reef shark writhing in the hands of a research assistant.

Chapman tried to grab the shark behind the gills but missed. She has a “healthy respect” for sharks, but that sometimes translates into something more primal.

“I know how slim my chances of encountering a shark are, let alone having a negative encounter. Yet there are times when I simply cannot shake the feeling of fear.”

Interspersed within Shark Attacks are harrowing accounts of victims, whom Chapman interviewed at length. Their stories, she says, show how even those who have had awful encounters with sharks can overcome their fears to enter the water again.

Take the story of Tony Lee, who was 44 when he went swimming off the shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu in October 2015. He was grabbed around his ankles by what is believed to have been a tiger shark and quickly pulled underwater.

Punching the shark’s nose had no effect, so Lee, an eye researcher, drew on his anatomical knowledge to fight back.

“Tiger sharks have a nictitating membrane, just like rabbits and pigs, so I used one finger to pull up the membrane and I just pushed really hard with another. I used my index finger to get right behind the eyeball … and I pulled and ripped the shark’s eyeball right out,” he told Chapman. “Luckily, it let go of me.”

When he surfaced, he still had the shark’s eyeball in his hand. One of his legs had to be amputated. After numerous operations, Lee may end up losing his remaining foot.

Remarkably, he was quickly back in the water, surfing and competing in organised distance ocean swims. It isn’t uncommon among shark-attack survivors, says Chapman.

“I can’t say that’s representative of all of them. Some have accepted it and moved on, whereas others are still suffering post-traumatic stress disorder or are struggling to deal with their injuries. It has taught me a lot about the human spirit.”

Although the numbers are tiny – just 84 reported unprovoked shark attacks in 2016 worldwide – New Zealand still ranks fifth in the world for attacks, behind the US, Australia, South Africa and Brazil.

Great white threat

Great whites and broadnose seven-gill sharks pose the greatest threat in our waters, but efforts to prevent attacks on humans by them and a handful of other species that occasionally show interest are of the common-sense variety.

Surfers, who feature most commonly in attack statistics, know not to surf alone and to avoid shark nurseries. Lifeguards scan the ocean for sharks and will order people out of the water if they spot a large one. Most attacks on humans are thought to be cases of mistaken identity: surfboards in particular give riders the appearance of paddling seals.

Dunedin City Council did away with its 100m-long shark nets at St Clair, St Kilda and Brighton beaches in 2011, a decision backed by shark experts who considered them totally ineffective at catching the targeted shark species. Nevertheless, it was a contentious move – three fatal shark attacks on Dunedin’s beaches in the 1960s left a lasting impression on bathers and surfers.

It is a different story in Australia, where nets line 85 Queensland beaches and a further 51 in New South Wales – 2200km of coastline in total. Drumlines are also used, featuring baited hooks suspended from plastic floats anchored to the sea floor.

“A lot of our traditional measures, such as drumlines and mesh nets, are designed as lethal measures to kill sharks,” says Chapman. “The idea is that fewer sharks equals fewer bites. It sounds logical, but it hasn’t been proven.”

Maintaining and monitoring nets and drumlines is expensive, but even worse, they trap and kill many sharks that are harmless to people. New technologies such as smart drumlines allow for sharks to be released, but Chapman says more research is needed to determine whether they are achieving their goal.

“If we are taking a non-target species off the drumline and releasing it straight away and it swims off and survives, that’s great,” she says. “If it is a dangerous species and we take it further offshore, we need to know where those animals are going, if they are surviving their release and whether they are coming back towards the shore.”

More controversial are shark culls, where the animals are caught and killed, in the wake of an attack or more generally to reduce shark numbers. The Western Australia Government faced public pressure to revive shark culling last April after 17-year-old Laeticia Brouwer was fatally bitten while surfing near Esperance with her father.

Again, Chapman says the evidence for killing sharks doesn’t stack up. “Culling to the extent that you reduce human fatalities is really difficult. You’d have to focus on a number of different species to catch all the ones considered dangerous. It would require continued and exhaustive financial and human resources, causing a lot more harm than good,” she says.

Better tracking and detection of sharks using acoustic detection, spotter flights and even drones are helping. But Chapman’s preferred approach is better education.

“It is knowing how to reduce your own risk, knowing the conditions that might increase your likelihood of encountering a shark. Is there reduced visibility or low light? Is the water a bit murky? Are there bait fish in the water?”

A few practical tips (see below) can reduce the already tiny risk of shark attack. We also need to be more aware of the adverse effects humans are having on shark habitats, says Chapman.

Brazil is a cautionary example. Shark attacks there occur almost entirely along one 20km stretch of coastline around Recife, the capital of Brazil’s north-eastern state of Pernambuco. The attacks started in 1992, spiking to as many as 10 a year through the 1990s as new port infrastructure was developed at the coastal town of Suape.

Coral reefs were removed, water channels excavated and mangrove habitats destroyed. Low-frequency sounds from boat traffic attracted bull sharks. An increase in shark attacks has been directly linked to larger numbers of ships entering Suape Port.

The greater risk

“If we are changing the sharks’ environment, we will be seeing different movement and different behaviour from them. We need to keep that in mind as we continue to develop our coastal environments,” says Chapman.

By a huge statistical margin, we pose a greater risk to sharks than they do to us. We kill an estimated 100 million a year through shark fishing, by-catch and finning – the cruel practice of cutting off a shark’s fins and throwing its body back into the water. The Government banned shark finning in our waters in 2014.

Legitimate shark fishing feeds a billion-dollar industry for shark meat, fins, livers and gills that is getting more valuable as demand for bony fish increases and some stocks dwindle.

“Those numbers astound me,” says Chapman. “Many current levels of shark catches are unsustainable and will need to change if we are to keep these animals in existence.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers 74 of 465 identified shark species to be “threatened”. The New Zealand Government classified great whites as a protected species in 2007, but many sharks roam widely, so are at the mercy of fishing trawlers on the high seas, where they may end up dumped back in the ocean as discarded by-catch.

Chapman’s young family means she now spends less time than she used to diving and studying the animals that have fascinated her since childhood. But she plans to continue her research into our relationship with these misunderstood creatures.

“I don’t mind what opinions people come away with at the end of this book, as long as they are based on fact, not fiction, on reality, not emotion and on science, not gossip.”

Shark attacks – 10 tips to reduce your risk.

1. Swim at patrolled beaches where lifeguards are scanning for sharks and can come to your aid.
2. Don’t swim in murky water where visibility is reduced for both you and the sharks.
3. Avoid swimming at dawn, dusk or night-time, when some sharks are more active and visibility is reduced.
4. Avoid river mouths, particularly after a storm, as debris washed from the land can attract sharks.
5. Avoid swimming in deeper water far offshore where sharks are more likely to be.
6. Don’t swim among schooling fish or where birds are diving, as they attract sharks.
7. Avoid swimming near people who are fishing or where animal carcasses are in the water.
8. Don’t swim in areas where sharks are known to gather (including around marine mammal rookeries).
9. Always swim, dive or surf with others (the presence of more people may be a deterrent).
10. If you see a shark, don’t provoke it or harass it.