Scientists say 'shark attacks' open to misinterpretation

Sydney, Feb 1 (IANS) "Shark attack" is a blanket term to describe almost any kind of human-shark interaction - even those involving no contact or injury. Thus, it is open to misinterpretation, researchers say.

A new study conducted by the University of Sydney says that 38 percent of the so called reported "shark attacks" in Australia between 1979 and 2009 did not involve any injuries.

Christopher Neff of the University of Sydney and Robert Hueter, leader of Mote Marine Lab Centre for Shark Research in Sarasota, Florida, propose a new system of classification to support more accurate scientific reporting about shark interactions, the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences reports.

The study authors analysed shark statistics from around the world and found the term "shark attack" misleading in many cases.

For instance, a 2009 government report from New South Wales, documented 200 shark attacks. But 38 of those involved no injuries to people, according to a Sydney statement.

In Florida, often called the 'Shark Attack Capital of the World', only 11 fatal bites have been recorded over the past 129 years -- a lower number than several other locations in the world, and vastly lower than deaths from other types of natural events such as drowning or lightning.

"Not all shark 'attacks' are created equal, and we certainly shouldn't call bites on kayaks and bites on people the same thing," says Neff, doctoral candidate conducting the first study on policy responses to shark bites at Sydney.

Hueter adds: "Nor should we equate the single bite of a 2-foot (60 cm) shark on a surfer's toe with the fatal bite of a 15-foot (4.8 m) shark on a swimmer, but that's how the current language treats these incidents."

Despite these facts, the term "shark attack" has dominated the language due to outdated historical perceptions of sharks, the researchers say.

Sharks were labelled "man-eaters" two centuries ago by scientists who had a limited understanding of shark behaviour and biology, and a researcher in the 1950s wrongly suggested sharks could go "rogue", developing a taste for human flesh.

Popular culture -- especially the novel and film "Jaws" directed by Steven Spielberg in the 1970s -- has strengthened rogue shark legends. News media reports also have contributed to misperceptions of human-shark interactions.

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