As an American political scientist specialising in public attitudes and policy responses to shark bites, I am pleased and honoured to have been a Save Our Seas Foundation advisor in 2013. You could say that I began my research at the age of eight, watching the movie Jaws. I was in awe of sharks and began reading all the available books about them, which included the classic oceanography writings of Ron and Valerie Taylor.
For me, shark bite policy responses have a vital role to play in the conservation of sharks because these predators can only be protected successfully if we address the fact that the general public has very different feelings about sharks swimming in the middle of the ocean and sharks swimming along local beaches. This is one of the reasons why there is a disconnect between public alarm at shark finning and public policies that allow for shark culling off beaches. Indeed, the beach is the starting point for nearly all human–shark perceptions and policies. As a result, perceptions about local shark populations can impact broader conversations about national and international shark conservation.
In 2010 I embarked upon the first PhD on ‘the politics of shark attacks’ in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. I have presented my research at scientific conferences, including the International Congress for Conservation Biology and the International Marine Conservation Congress, and have published in leading journals, among them Marine Policy and Coastal Management.
Some people found the topic far-fetched at the time, but over the past four years there has been a marked increase in the politicisation of shark bites across the world, notably in Western Australia. Government responses to shark bite incidents give meaning to them as ‘attacks’ and blame the sharks, stereotyping them so that all shark conservation is hindered. Yet there is also an increasing appreciation for how education, communication and public engagement can build upon the great work that is being done in shark conservation science. As a result, I work with a team of scientists from around the world to build bridges between social science studies and natural science research.
The Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) shares this desire to build bridges and in 2013, in the capacity of a social scientist, I reviewed educational grant proposals for the Foundation to identify how social science, public engagement and communication can translate into real conservation impacts.
In short, this interdisciplinary setting provides a strong foundation for continuing with innovative research and projects that are dedicated to understanding how people around the world perceive sharks. From this will follow how better policy making, particularly in the wake of shark bite incidents, can be educational as well as beneficial to both public safety and shark conservation.
In 2013 Dr Robert Hueter, of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, and I decided to address the historical discourse on shark ‘attacks’ and offer an alternative scientific approach. In an article entitled ‘Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark “attack”: a proposal for reclassifying human–shark interactions’ and published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, we critiqued the history of the phrase ‘shark attack’ and proposed four new classifications for scientists and the media: sighting, encounter, bite and fatal shark bite.
For our research to be successful, however, it needed to reach a wider audience. We approached SOSF and asked the Foundation to help fund the ‘open access’ release of the article. Having gone public in this way, it was downloaded 1,000 times in the first two days and remains the most downloaded article in the journal’s history. In July the American Elasmobranch Society approved a resolution to adopt the Neff and Hueter (2013) typology as the recommended categorisation for shark bites, and even sent a letter to the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook to that effect. The impact of the article can now be seen in the reporting of shark encounters around the world.
For me, SOSF funding has conferred greater access to the world’s best scientists and the capacity to challenge old ideas and establish a better-recognised international research profile. The Foundation has been willing to support innovative research that otherwise would not have taken place. With its support, the international discourse on shark bites is changing and breakthroughs in research on human perceptions of sharks are being made. These can have a lasting impact on shark conservation.