Shark Kills Swimmer, Media Demonizes Sharks; Who’s Attacking Who?

Yesterday, a fatal shark attack in Sydney, Australia captured attention worldwide. When a great white killed a swimmer off Little Bay Beach, it triggered not only an exhaustive search but also a media firestorm.

Many outlets have focused the lens on sharks, but not in a way that does anything good for the animals. While the death of a swimmer is obviously a tragedy, the viral nature of the story vilifies sharks at a time when they are more vulnerable than ever.

Below, ExplorersWeb takes a closer look.

Sydney shark attack: Headline writers go for the kill

Take a deep breath and read this long-winded headline by The Daily Mail:

The chilling reason behind Sydney’s deadly shark attack: Expert explains why killer 4.5metre great white was so close to the area – as graphic reveals how the terrifying ‘vertical’ mauling unfolded.

Words like “chilling”, “killer”, and “terrifying” cause two effects in the headline: 1) sensationalize the story and 2) demonize sharks.

Meanwhile, The Guardian wrote: “Sydney shark attack: authorities say large great white responsible for death of 35-year-old man.”

How is it fair to hold a wild animal “responsible” for the death of a human? Especially one who voluntarily entered the animal’s habitat?

sydney shark attack

A white shark swims with other species off the coast of Mexico. Photo: Terry Goss

 

Even the authorities regulating the search appear to recognize that the great white in question deserves fair treatment. Australia’s Department of Primary Industries (DPI) is using non-lethal baited lines to try to catch and relocate the shark.

We asked an expert about what the episode means for the apex predators. Paul Cater Deaton is an underwater filmmaker and shark expert. He holds certifications in shark biodiversity, biology, and conservation through the University of Queensland and Cornell University.

He stated that humans are not a food source for sharks. When we venture into their habitat, there’s a small possibility that sharks will mistake us for food.

“We’re talking about somebody who was in the shark’s habitat,” he said. “The shark obviously mistook it for one of its food items. Humans are not on the menu.”

Statistically, Deaton is right. Shark attacks against humans are extremely rare — the International Shark Attack File, or ISAF, recorded just 16 fatal attacks worldwide in 2020-21.

Humans imminently threaten sharks, but also rely on them

Sharks can use all the help they can get from humans — recently, they haven’t gotten much. Over the past 50 years, overfishing and other human activity has decimated sharks. The shark fin soup industry and accidental “bycatch” by commercial fishing boats using gill nets are significant problems.

A thresher shark caught in a gill net in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Photo: Brian Skerry

 

Now, the majority of species of the keystone ocean predators face extinction.

A 2021 study published in the scientific journal Nature found that open ocean shark populations have dropped a staggering 70% since 1970. The authors pointed out that the outlook is probably even bleaker than that.

Nathan Pacoureau is a marine biologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and the study’s lead author.

“There is a very small window to save these iconic creatures,” he said. He says that the situation jeopardizes marine ecosystems, and in turn, people all over the world who rely on these ecosystems for food. More than three-quarters of oceanic shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction.

Meanwhile, sharks play a vital role in supporting healthy, diverse ocean ecosystems. As top predators, they help regulate every ocean species below them in the food chain — all the way down to seagrass and algae. Without sharks, habitat imbalances lead to chain reactions like reef death and species extinction.

reef shark

Sharks are key to healthy marine habitats like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Leonard Low

Upshot: What’s the real danger?

Recent good news for sharks includes scientific evidence that lighted fishing nets can dramatically reduce their susceptibility to accidental catch.

Still, the proliferation of aggressive headlines about the Sydney incident shows that public perception of sharks has a long way to go.

 

“When people write provocative headlines and articles about shark attacks, they do it because they want to sell the story,” Cater Deaton said. “Actually, sharks are very cautious, inquisitive creatures. Humans cause great loss to sharks; the statistics are staggering.”

One popular study found that humans kill anywhere between 63 and 247 million sharks every year. Translation? Two sharks per second, on the low end.

The Daily Mail’s headline is technically accurate in one key detail: yes, sharks are “killers.” But we should be far more terrified of losing them than of being attacked by them.

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.


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Craig Quigley
Craig Quigley
3 months ago

Interesting article. And nice to see a balanced view on the subject. Not sure how many humans are killed by sharks each year, but marine biologists estimate 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year!

The point about swimmers being in the sharks territory is important, and is why I’m against the ‘cage diving’ trips you see regularly in South Africa – which promote the association of humans with food to sharks. Not to mention drawing them away from their nature hunting patterns, to chace bait thrown from the cage diving boats.

Last edited 3 months ago by quigs
Frederick
Frederick
3 months ago

Sharks and other dangerous sea creatures, co-exist quite happily. The fin trade accounts for a huge amount of shark species reduction. Putting the number of attacks in figures against recreational water sports and swimming hours. Then the rate would be extremely low, This does not mean I do not feel for the family who lost their loved one. Even with Sydney’s nets, shark watches and deterrents migratory predators are difficult to guard against.

Thrill seeker
Thrill seeker
3 months ago

It’s a mystery to a land lubber like myself how the good people of California don’t become more of a menu item, even if mistakenly, for the Great White.
Our waters are full of the Apex predators, sharks too.
Plenty of videos available now of surfers, swimmers and others here on The West coast casually interacting with sharks, completely unknown to the people at the time, with very few fatal or even injurious incidents.