Book review – Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear

If there is one group of animals that Steven Spielberg has not done a favour, it must be sharks. Already feared as a dangerous predator in an environment where humans are not in their element the 1975 movie Jaws drove this fear to stratospheric heights and painted a portrait of these fish as ruthless man-eating monsters. Browse any selection of books on sharks, and you’re likely to see photos of a breaching great white, jaws agape. Many people are not happy with this Jaws effect (see for example Lindsay Abrams’s post on Salon or Marc Lapadula’s piece on Screenprism), and this lingering fear even affects policymakers (see Christopher Neff’s article in the Australian Journal of Political Science). Tobey Curtis provides an interesting counter note to this sentiment on The Fisheries Blog, also pointing out how – ironically – Peter Benchley, author of the book on which Spielberg based his movie, was actually an advocate for shark conservation (see his book Shark Trouble). As a side-note, shark attacks have happened for as long as human have entered the sea, though have long been poorly documented – Richard Fernicola’s Twelve Days of Terror: Inside the Shocking 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks is a bit of an exception.

This, by way of a short introduction, brings us to the current book: Chapman’s Shark Attacks. The problem with shark attacks is that they are a bit like plane crashes: low-probability, high-impact events. You’re not likely to experience either, but when you do, the results can be disastrous. And thus we fear both flying and sharks.

Shark Attacks

Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear”, written by Blake Chapman, published by CSIRO in November 2017 (paperback, 268 pages)

This book aims to bring some rational thought to the issue, looking at a range of subjects. After reviewing some relevant aspects of shark biology, Chapman considers the role of the media and the disproportionate attention every single attack gets, which often is in the hundreds of newspaper articles and news bulletin items. Most of this is rife with sensationalism, which only reinforces our fears. When balanced and based on facts, media coverage *can* be a force for good and educate people. Then there is a chapter on the role of human psychology on our irrational fear and several very practical chapters on what you can do to minimise risk, and on first aid and trauma medicine. Personal mitigation largely comes down to being informed and making clever choices. None of the devices on the market that Chapman shortly reviews here offer full protection, few have been thoroughly independently tested, and most are of doubtful efficacy, with some possibly even repelling some shark species while attracting others! The last three chapters look at management responses and policy options, offer a review of various protective measures that have been implemented in, amongst others, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Hawai’i, and the role of legislation in minimising shark attacks. Most measures implemented to prevent shark attacks are cruel, ineffective, impractical or unpopular. Large-scale culling seems more a kneejerk response to appease angry crowds; drum-lines (lines with baited hooks) and mesh nets indiscriminately kill anything that gets caught, including fish, marine mammals such as dolpins, and turtles, which can in turn actually attract sharks; acoustic and sonar detection are not refined enough for the task yet; human monitoring can work if thorough enough, but needs the right kind of environment; and beach closures are effective but understandably unpopular. An additional problem is that sharks range so widely that it’s incredibly hard to tag sufficient numbers to track them and collect relevant data on the efficacy of these mitigation strategies.

Two things really stand out in this book. First is that Chapman, despite her background as a marine biologist, manages to approach this topic neutrally. Where Riley Elliott’s Shark Man: One Kiwi Man’s Mission to Save Our Most Feared and Misunderstood Predator is a pro-shark conservationist book that gives a better picture of the horrors inflicted on sharks in the name of mitigation strategies, Chapman is cautious not to pick a side. She is fascinated by sharks, but does not downplay the gruesome aftermath victims are faced with, nor seek to sensationalise the topic. Though there is no shortage of books with eyewitness accounts (most recently Sharks Never Sleep: First-Hand Encounters with Killers of the Sea), Chapman has rightly included a large number of personal accounts of survivors, relatives, medical personnel, and legislators and politicians. Some are in favour of culling, others are not, but all get their say in this book. It’s remarkable to read how at-risk groups such as surfers and bodyboarders mostly oppose revenge culling. Possessed of a love for the sea, and a healthy respect for its inhabitants, these people tend to willingly and knowingly take the risk and the responsibility when they enter the water. There is even the Fin for a Fin initiative, which sees surfers attach a fin to their board to indicate they don’t condone revenge killings in the unlikely case they get hurt or killed by a shark. Similarly remarkable is the Facebook group for shark attack survivors that seeks to immediately offer psychological support to victims in the aftermath of their ordeal.

“Chapman is cautious not to pick a side. She is fascinated by sharks, but does not downplay the gruesome aftermath victims are faced with, nor seek to sensationalise the topic”

The second thing to stand out is the complexity of the problem. Most attacks are done by just a few large species, but with over 500 species currently described, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The differences in biology between species mean that mitigation measures that work against one species might not repel another, or even attract them. And that’s before accounting for individual differences within species. Solutions employed by one country might not work in others, meaning most areas will have to work towards their own tailor-made solutions that account for species composition and seasonality in shark presence, and local geography.

While Chapman rightfully highlights how myths, misunderstanding and misplaced fear blow the problem of shark attacks out of proportion, she doesn’t really look at the flipside. Sharks are far more at threat from us than we are from them (see for example Thomas Peschak’s graphical documentation in Sharks & People: Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea). This was likely a deliberate choice, and although she gives the reader a basic introduction to shark mortality due to fisheries on page 6, I would have liked to see her return to this in closing the book, as the gap between human-caused shark mortality and shark-caused human mortality is insane.

Though this is not the first book to try to bring the voice of reason to the topic (see also Thomas Allen’s 2001 Shark Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, Joyce Zoldak’s 2009 Danger in the Deep: Surviving Shark Attacks, or Sue Blackhall’s 2012 Killers in the Water: The New Super Sharks Terrorising the World’s Oceans), its coverage of practical measures and policy responses, and moderate, non-sensational tone (and cover!) make this book recommended to anyone interested in this form of human-wildlife conflict. As she points out in her introduction, sharks are an ancient group of fish that play an important role in marine ecosystems, and our ruthless destruction of this apex predator could have dire, worldwide consequences. With continued education, we can hopefully keep on turning the tide in favour of shark conservation rather than persecution, dispel unnecessary fear, make policy decisions on rational rather than emotional grounds, and minimise the number of people injured or killed by sharks.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Shark Attacks paperback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:




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