For this Sharkbites Saturday, we’re going to head in a different direction than usual and talk about the perception of sharks. Think about the people in your immediate social circle. Do they like sharks, or do they fear them? If you have my social circle, the answer is that they unequivocally love sharks, but if you’re like most folks, you’ll likely be hearing that sharks are scary and attack humans all the time and we should definitely be preparing for the next Sharknado (Figure 1).
Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but sharks are not well-loved by the public. Here in America, we have Shark Week every year, but many of the programs play on the public’s fear about sharks. We hardly ever see sharks on the news, and when we do, it’s likely about a shark attack. There are a lot of efforts in place to change attitudes about sharks – education programs, shark touch tanks in aquariums, conservation group messaging – but it’s been an uphill battle.
Researchers in Australia conducted a survey among beachgoers to better understand what people know about sharks and the different strategies to get them away from beaches. There are a few common strategies in place, and none of them are without controversy:
- Setting passive fishing gear like shark nets, which target sharks swimming near beaches (Figure 2);
- Culling threatening species by catching and killing larger sharks of a population;
- Educating the public and setting up warning programs;
- Directed hunting and killing of sharks that were in a bite incident; and of course,
- Doing nothing.
There is no magic solution to reducing the number of shark attack incidents, but many of those common options have ethical and environmental consequences. Governments and societies face a dilemma: how do we protect people but also protect sharks?
The researchers here wanted to understand more about community attitudes towards these different methods, since not much has been done on the subject. A previous survey also in Australia found that locals were aware of different strategies to avoid shark bites, but they didn’t know how they actually worked and still overestimated their chances of being attacked by a shark. Clearly, more information than that is needed to help develop socially acceptable shark deterrent strategies.
They surveyed 200 people on two beaches in Australia during the summer, asking them questions about shark bite prevention strategies that gave simple yes, no, or undecided answers. They also gave the respondents the chance to add comments to their responses to gain a clearer picture of the reasoning behind their answers.
Results and Importance
They found that beachgoers were largely aware of the shark nets already in place at beaches near Sydney. Older people (51+) were more likely to know about the nets than people aged 18-50. There is no official signage about the nets at the beaches, but the media in Australia tends to report on them during the summer, so local awareness was to be expected.
In terms of support for those nets, over 60% of all respondents said that they were for the use of the nets. These nets have been in use for more than 70 years at Sydney beaches, and many of the respondents thought the nets do a good job at deterring sharks and preventing attacks. Of those who didn’t support the nets, they were most worried about other animals getting caught in them or thought the nets were just a “placebo” to make swimmers feel more safe. However, when the researchers probed a little further, they discovered that few people understood how the nets actually worked. Interviewees acknowledged that more information about the nets may impact their perspective in the future.
Hardly any of the respondents (less than 10%) said that we should be actively killing sharks, either via culling the population or directly hunting and killing “perpetrators” of bites. There was a slight trend that older people (51+) and males supported culling strategies more than younger people and females. More people were more willing to support active killing after a bite incident (15-38%), with several people saying that they’re okay with that “only if the culprit shark could be positively identified”. People may be drawing a line between the killing of innocent sharks in general verses targeting an offending shark. This attitude indicated to the researchers that emotions and media attention, rather than facts, are dictating some responses (Figure 3).
Understanding these attitudes is important to governments and conservation organizations – having an intimate knowledge of societal attitudes towards sharks can help them work together to find solutions that work for both people and sharks. An educational outreach campaign to provide more balanced information about sharks rather than fear mongering would likely impact some attitudes, and help contribute to the development of socially acceptable shark management programs.
Engage: What do you think about shark mitigation strategies? What could we do to reduce shark attacks and make beachgoers happy? Could we use technology to solve this problem?
Hi and welcome to oceanbites! I recently finished my master’s degree at URI, focusing on lobsters and how they respond metabolically to ocean acidification projections. I did my undergrad at Boston University and majored in English and Marine Sciences – a weird combination, but a scientist also has to be a good writer! When I’m not researching, I’m cooking or going for a run or kicking butt at trivia competitions. Check me out on Twitter @glassysquid for more ocean and climate change related conversation!