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Shark Info 3 / 01   (09-15-2001)

Author

  Intro:

Accident analysis as a measure for active shark protection

Shark Info

  Main article:

Accident analysis as a measure for active shark protection

Dr. E. K. Ritter

  Article 1:

Is fear of sharks justified?

Nihal Özkara

  Article 2:

Annual Meeting of the American Elasmobranch Society (AES)

Jürg Brunnschweiler

  Article 3:

Meaningful usage or overexploitation?

Harald Gay

  Fact Sheet:

Mackerel Sharks

Dr. E. K. Ritter


Accident analysis as a measure for active shark protection

By Dr. E. K. Ritter

Hammerhead

The end of a large hammerhead shark.

© Dr. E. Ritter

Basically people take one of two sides in the question of shark protection: First there are those who advocate shark protection, or at least feel that limits should be set on shark fishing in order to prevent severe and uncontrollable damage to the ocean ecology. The second group is much larger and consists of those who fear sharks and thus oppose any kind of protection. The respective hollywood productions and yellow press reports on shark accidents do their part to restrict the promotion of shark protection measures by continually fomenting precisely this fear and making the initiation of protective measures all the more difficult. Yet fear of sharks is unfounded for these animals do not pose any real threat to humans.

 

Why are people so afraid of sharks?

What appears to be a simple question becomes more difficult to answer the closer one examines it. Most likely it is not the shark which people fear but instead their fear is projected into this animal. People fear the water, the dark, the deep...and this can all be shifted to the sharks which swim around in this element. Astonishingly enough, "the shark" does not exist and so "the fear of sharks" cannot really exist either. But why do people react with such panic when seeing a shark or simply by imagining them? Is it their teeth, which - except for some very rare species - only become visible when they bite? Or is it their eyes, their movements...? Whatever the reasons are, they suffice to clear the beaches in the shortest possible time whenever a shark is even suspected of being in the area, irregardless of the species, its size or its reasons for appearing.

The more I study this subject, the less I understand why people can even have this fear. Only a handful of them have ever seen a shark and even less have ever found themselves in a threatening situation with such an animal - and yet 9 out of 10 people are afraid of them. The medical description of fear is a state of tension which involves feelings of suffocation and impending danger, often connected with bodily reactions such as trembling, heart palpitations, perspiration, as well as insomnia and overexcitability. Such fear can result from an external reaction such as a real threat, or it can be a reaction stemming from emotional conflicts. Since an actual threat from sharks - as already suggested - is not possible since most people would never submit themselves or be subjected to such a situation in the first place, only an emotional conflict remains. But what type of a conflict?

Nevertheless, as irrational as this fear of sharks may be, it is dominant and real when it comes to protecting these animals. And when several shark accidents occur sequentially within a short space of time, as was recently the case in the U.S. and the Bahamas, any attempts to protect them appear almost hopeless. Does this mean it would be easier to protect sharks if no more shark accidents occurred? Viewed from the aspect of fear and the respective reactions to such accidents the answer to this question would have to be yes. Accordingly, this would also mean that if shark accidents could be explained objectively, it could change at least part of the populations's way of thinking to the benefit of the sharks - shark accident analysis as a means to achieve shark protection.

It is important to understand that no shark species as such is dangerous. When comparing species, only single individuals of one species may have a low threshold when it comes to biting unknown objects. Still, this does not mean that sharks bite unknown objects because they are aggressive, they do so out of curiosity or play instinct... Whatever the final reason may be, it is imperative that each accident be looked at individually, separately from the species and animal, and that no assumptions are made on the common behavior of an entire species based on the behavior of only one animal.

Why is it so important to understand shark accidents?

Shark accidents must be investigated in order to determine what went wrong with an animal compared to other members of its species who were never involved in an accident. This approach is important because it is wrong to assume that all individuals of the same species are the same, although this, unfortunately, is a very common reaction following an accident. But how do people react in a similar human situation? For example, if a murder is committed in our community, do we label the entire community as murderers simply because one of its citizens committed a crime? Certainly not, yet this is exactly what we do with sharks. It is thus imperative that we do some rethinking - for example by putting aside the assumption that tiger sharks, white sharks and bullsharks, etc., are, as such, dangerous. Instead we must approach the problem from a different angle, i.e. that individuals or some rare representatives of the tiger shark, white shark or bull shark families have caused accidents. The moment we can explain why an animal of one particular species reacts differently from the characteristic ways of its follow members, we can look at these accidents from a different viewpoint. In this way we can appeal to the common sense of those in doubt, helping to make sure that not the entire species is condemned for the actions of only several individuals.

Accident analyses

An accident must be examined to understand it. Accident analysis is very complex and must be accurate. In addition to gathering information on the actual incident, including police and medical reports, eyewitness reports, weather reports, etc, and on-site investigations - it also requires wound analysis to determine the species and size of the animal, and to allow the later reconstruction of the wound on dummies and of the actual accident with a representative of the species under similar circumstances. Accident analyses resemble puzzles: various pieces must be put together in order to get a full picture. Certain parts of the puzzle are difficult to find and without them the picture may be somewhat distorted, not making much sense, preventing recognition of what the picture really reveals. As soon as the most important elements are combined, the history and reason for the accident can be explained.

There is no such thing as an unprovoked shark accident

Shark accidents are exceptions and not the rule. No two accidents are the same, although some conclusions can be drawn from them and similar factors played a role in how they happened. And regardless of the type of accident, it is never the shark who causes it, but rather the person who creates a situation which literally provokes it. Sharks react rather than act in the proximity of humans. And even when relevant statistics would like you to believe that practically all accidents with white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are unprovoked, this must not only be questioned but also corrected as being false. Sharks are always provoked by people - although not always consciously - but in all cases people are responsible. The problem is that often we do not know when we provoke a shark or when we manoeuvre ourselves into a situation which may evoke an accident. And often it is not the resulting victim who attracts the sharks, but rather people who are not in the water at the time, e.g. fishermen with baits stationed on the shore.

How can we better protect ourselves from such accidents?

Precarious situations which could lead to accidents must be nipped in the bud. Accidents must thus be looked at from this viewpoint and the respective instructions issued should it become known that they could have been prevented had specific measures been in force at the time, or had certain activities been restricted or prohibited. For this reason the GSAF (Global Shark Attack File) of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton, N.J. (USA), entrusted a group of individuals with the task of dealing with such accidents, either in the laboratory or in the field in order to determine the circumstances which provoked the accident and, if necessary, to issue recommendations to local officials or others involved in order to prevent the accident from being repeated in another place at another time.

Again, sharks do not provoke accidents - it is people who do so, either consciously or unconsciously. A solution must thus be sought to help restore the good image of sharks and open the door to their protection. When people begin to comprehend that an accident is nothing more than a situation created and provoked by humans, at least some of them may perhaps change their way of thinking. But in order to realize this, each accident must be understood and explained to eliminate any doubt about the shark's innocence. In addition, the real causes of shark accidents must be made public and propagated by the media to the same degree as the accident reports themselves. Only when proof is brought that sharks are not the devilish creatures which the media present them to be, and which most people believe them to be, is there even the slightest chance of saving these animals.

* Dr. Erich K. Ritter, Chief Scientist, Global Shark Attack File, Shark Research Institute, Princeton

May be published only by indicating the source: Shark Info / Dr. E. K. Ritter



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