Should We Be Worried About Shark Attack Deaths?
There’s been a lot of footage of sharks swimming near our beaches on social media recently, like this one that was filmed off the coast of NSW earlier this month.
There’s also been a rise in deaths from shark attacks in Australia this year.
But should footage like this make us more or less afraid of sharks?
2020 has been a particularly deadly year in Australia for shark attacks.
7 people have been killed so far by sharks this year, which is the highest number of shark attack deaths since 1929 when there were 9 fatalities.
The latest death was 52 year old Andrew Sharpe, who was taken by a shark while he was surfing a beach near Esperance in WA.
The news has felt pretty horrifying and it’s obviously making people uneasy, especially heading into summer.
So, Why Are These Attacks Happening?
Well, nobody really knows.
There are a few theories floating around but none of them have been proven by any sort of hard science.
One is related to the boom in whale and dolphin populations that’s been happening for a few years, because of successful protection legislation.
More whales and dolphins means more food for sharks.
Another theory is that Australia’s La Niña weather pattern is increasing rainfall on the east coast.
Rain can flush a bunch of nutrients from the land out to sea and create these pockets of cold, food-rich water, which can attract fish as well as the sharks that eat them.
But These Are Just Theories
Even though the number of shark attacks is higher this year than previous years, those statistics may not be a reason to panic.
We spoke with Rob Townsend about this. He’s an assistant curator and shark expert from SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, and he thinks that even though we should have a healthy respect for sharks and follow basic safety advice, we don’t need to be too worried about the numbers yet.
Rob Townsend: “The trouble with shark interactions and things like that is that we’re starting from a very low base. So even if we’re talking about fatal interactions or fatal bites on humans, in an average year you get 2 to 5 fatalities. And I think this year we’re sitting at around 8 or 9. So, whilst that on one hand sounds like double, on the other hand it’s an additional three.”
Rob told me that there are basically two ways we can react to videos like these.
The first is a fear reaction, which is really driven by media outlets that want to sensationalise shark encounters when they happen.
RT: “They love the big kind of scary shark footage and if they can put a red filter over it and play some scary footage and make it look scary and play scary music then they will.”
Is There Another Way To Look At It?
Rob thinks there’s another way to look at it.
He thinks the increase in drone footage could start to open the public’s eyes to normal shark behaviour instead of the media’s sensationalising stories.
RT: “I saw some particularly poor journalism on one of those shows where they had drone footage of what appeared to be probably a white shark swimming within metres of swimmers, and they were playing it like, ‘oh these swimmers were lucky to get away with their lives‘ and where in reality, the shark swam past, knew the swimmers were there, did nothing about it and kept on swimming.”
Jason Iggleden is the man behind the hugely popular Drone Shark App accounts on social media.
He shoots drone footage around Bondi Beach, Tamarama and Bronte and sees sharks pretty consistently.
Jason thinks that his footage has the potential to let people make informed decisions about getting in the water. But he agrees with Rob that it could also change people’s reactions to sharks in general.
Jason Iggleden: “It’s showing behaviours, it’s creating awareness. Don’t fear sharks [for] how they’re portrayed in the media or the movie Jaws. It’s not like a shark’s there to eat humans, it’s not how it works … I’m sure there have been thousands of sharks swimming by us in the water every day that we’ve never seen because we don’t have drones, and they haven’t done anything about it.”
The deaths from sharks in Australia this year have been tragic, but the statistics probably aren’t enough for us to be panicking about right now.
The drone footage that we keep seeing might be scary on the surface but really, we’re just seeing sharks being sharks for the first time because of this access to technology, and it has the potential to really change how we think about these animals in our oceans.