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Coastal Management

Tigers, Bears, and Sharks, Oh My! Who’s the deadliest?

Bornatowski, H. et al. Geographic bias in the media reporting of aquatic versus terrestrial human predator conflicts and its conservation implications. Perspect Ecol Conserv. (2018). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pecon.2018.12.004


Depends on where you live.

Where humans and large animals meet, the results can be disastrous. While few conflicts with wild animals result in death, they can have lasting physical and psychological effects on the unlucky human and can and do often result in death for the animal. Facing dwindling habitat worldwide and a rapidly changing climate, many large animals are coming into more frequent contact with their human neighbours.

Where I live, in Northeastern Canada, predatory mammals that become a nuisance are managed through a science-based cull. These culls work by both preventing an individual animal from learning human-hunting behaviours and removing possible genetic predispositions for risk-taking behaviour from the population. For bears, methods like this are highly effective. There are also a number of government-sponsored programs designed to educate the public on their role in managing large wildlife and how to avoid conflicts. In a province undergoing rapid (and ironic) development and loss of natural spaces, these education programs may be vital to shrinking our footprint on the environment and preventing future culls.

Left: Bears that become accustomed to being around people pose a serious risk to both bear and human health (by Paulo O). Right: The National Park Service posts a nuisance bear warning in Shenandoah National Park (by National Park Service)

Despite this well-established precedent for large animal management, there is one group of animals in my coastal province that we have plenty of but that we don’t have any public education programs for: The sharks.

Maybe it’s because we’ve never had a shark attack or the fact that Nova Scotians aren’t big swimmers, but the lack of public information is somewhat surprising considering how important surfing is becoming to our tourism industry and the number of big sharks we see in the summer.

There’s little evidence supporting the use of shark culls for keeping ocean-going humans safe. For one, it’s very hard to make sure you have the right shark (the one involved in the conflict), but it’s also not yet clear why certain sharks are drawn to different areas. However, there’s good evidence to suggest that education on shark behaviour and use of proper monitoring techniques can significantly reduce the incidence of attack. So why do we see so many headlines about shark attacks and calls for culls from areas where attacks do happen?

How common are shark attacks anyway?

Worldwide, there are roughly 80 shark attacks per year. One of those might be fatal. Most attacks occur along the Atlantic coast of the Southern United States and the Eastern coast of Australia, both of which are hotspots of shark diversity and are breeding areas for many species. These warm sunny places are also common recreation areas for swimmers, surfers, and other marine sport enthusiasts. Scientists consider the vast majority of shark attacks to be a result of mistaken identity and most attacks end with the shark quickly leaving the conflict after realizing their mistake.

A Great White Shark. One of the three shark species most likely to attack humans, followed by the Tiger and Bull Sharks (by Terry Goss)

Sharks collectively kill fewer people every year than do drownings, bicycle accidents, lightning strikes, falling coconuts, cow attacks, or tipped vending machines. Yet, they inspire fear unlike any other animal or disaster. After all, there’s no movie about a killer “bike-nado”.

A recent study by Brazilian researchers, Bornatowski et. al., looked at the incidence of shark attacks compared with terrestrial animal attacks around the world and found some interesting differences between land and sea.

Bornatowski extracted shark attack data from the International Shark Attack File database and data on terrestrial animal attacks from a term search in Web of Science, both dating from the mid 1800s to present day, and compared these confirmed conflicts with incidences reported by a single major media outlet newspaper, the UK-based Telegraph.

Unsurprisingly, Bornatowski’s team found significantly more confirmed terrestrial animal attacks than shark attacks when looking at overall global trends (26,911 vs 3,301 over 150 years). However, the researchers also found that 65% of those confirmed 3,301 shark attacks occurred in developed countries, while 97% of the attacks by large terrestrial animals occurred in developing countries.

In developed countries, in North America, Europe, and Oceania, terrestrial predators such as bears, cougars, wolves, and coyotes, made up only 26% of all incidents involving a large animal (or just 780 over ~150 years) while shark attacks made up 74% (2225). So it seems in the developed world, while you’re still more likely to be attacked by a coconut, if you do get attacked by a large animal it might just be a shark!

Shark attacks compared with attacks by large terrestrial animals (by RJParker with data from Bornatowski et. al.)

There are probably a few reasons for this. Bornatowski et. al. point out that a greater number of people are living and vacationing on the coast in developed nations, and that increasing marine recreation is linked to an increase in conflict with sharks. And, as in my own province, many developed countries have education or other management programs that help prevent conflict with terrestrial animals. Another important reason likely has to do with the state of our oceans themselves. Climate change, marine pollution, and overfishing have exacted a heavy toll on our marine ecosystems. Reunion Island, a popular surfing paradise in the Indian Ocean, has experienced a record number of unprovoked bull shark attacks in recent years. Scientists blame the increase in hungry shark population on a number of anthropogenic phenomena, including dense fish farming, overfishing of wild stock, and tasty marine garbage hotspots located conveniently underneath the best surfing swells.

Fake News?

A harmless Whale Shark, endangered globally, checking out a passing boat (by Jun V Lao Paparazsea)

When Bornatowski’s team compared confirmed attacks with reports from the media, they found an obvious bias towards over-reporting or sensationalizing shark attacks. When searching for “sharks”, more than 65% of media articles found focused on shark attacks, while searches for “lions” and “leopards” brought back conservation success stories and other news, with less than 5% attack stories. So shark attacks make up only 10% of all large animal attacks, but make it into more than half of media articles talking about animal attacks. Furthermore, the few news articles that did focus on terrestrial animal attacks were centered on the experiences of Western peoples visiting or hunting in developing countries and not conflicts with locals.

So, in the developed world, are we reporting on shark attacks because they’re more common than terrestrial animal attacks where we live? Probably not. Shark attacks are still incredibly rare; but sharks are scary, the vending machines at work (or the heart disease they’ll give you) are not. Western news outlets report on western problems, real or perceived, and not on the legitimate problem of lion and tiger attacks in poorer areas of Africa and Asia. This privilege in Western story-telling is, in part, responsible for dismissive policies that prevent us from providing meaningful support to our developing neighbours, but the overemphasis on underwhelming news like shark attacks is also bad for conservation in the Western world. People protect what they care about. While sharks might kill one person a year, we collectively kill millions of sharks every year through unsustainable fishing practices, irresponsible recreation, and failure to curb marine pollution. How do we conserve an animal that people are afraid of? How do we link the health of the ocean to the health of our sharks in the minds of disinterested beach-goers?

And when will Nova Scotia surf shops start carrying anti-shark wetsuits?

by RJParker


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