In the wake of the spectacular footage of champion surfer Mick Fanning’s recent shark encounter in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, and his good fortune in emerging without physical injury, sharks are back on the radar.
Many people are probably scratching their heads wondering how we can avoid such dangerous incidents. Some have suggested that “shark attack” is on the rise, and therefore that risk is increasing.
But the risk of dangerous interaction with a shark is incredibly low. In fact, a recent study found that in California shark-related fatalities have decreased significantly since 1950.
Collecting statistics on shark incidents is more fraught than it might seem. The Global and Australian Shark Attack Files collect data on all reported interactions. But “risk” is fiendishly difficult to calculate because we don’t have good data on numbers of people using the ocean or types of activities people undertake.
Terminology adds to the confusion: “shark attack” is highly emotive and often misleading. More precise terms like “sighting”, “encounter” and “bite” do more to describe an interaction, develop public understanding of shark behaviour, and reduce the chance of reaction motivated by fear.