An Australian debate about whether to describe shark bites as “attacks” or “encounters” has made its way to US television networks, stirring both jokes and dismissal the issue was the latest “liberal lunacy”.
The Herald earlier this month reported the Queensland government was looking to dial down the language when shark bites occur, preferring to describe them in its SmartShark literature as “a negative encounter”.
Johan Potgieter has an extremely close encounter with a great white shark off the coast of South Africa.Credit:GoPro
The report generated some local commercial radio debate about whether the avoidance of “attack” was the latest instance of “political correctness gone mad”.
Scientists, though, said it was likely that many, if not most, bites were clearly accidental – such as people stepping on Wobbegong sharks. In NSW, the Department of Primary Industries prefers “incidents” or “encounters” in its formal reporting.
The debate received play in the US with the New York Post republishing most of the Herald’s report, the New York Times detailing the experiences in Western Australia, California and elsewhere. Good Morning America also weighed in, with a piece calling for caution in language use.
Now, though, the issue has entered the so-called culture wars in the US, although sparking some humour along the way.
Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert joked about the response after a fatality might now be “I’m sorry a shark interacted with your husband’s torso, and he’s experiencing a ‘not-being-alive’ incident”.
Conservative TV host Tucker Carlson snagged the shark debate as “Today’s Liberal Lunacy” on a recent segment on the Fox Network.
Mr Carlson grilled Dave Portney, author of the book, Sharks Have Feelings Too, initially saying Americans “can imagine they can wade into the ocean without getting eaten. You’re saying that’s a violation of the territorial integrity of sharks”.
“Bodysurfing is a home invasion,” the host later said. ” You know, I don’t think most people have looked at it from that perspective.”
Mr Portney, though, was given time to make a case that it’s sharks, not humans, that are more at risk.
“If you look at the numbers, there’s 10 shark attacks, 10 deaths a year. There’s 100 million sharks that are being killed every year,” Mr Portney said. “The sharks aren’t the ones attacking people, it’s people attacking sharks.”
David Shiffman, a marine biologist at Arizona State University studying sharks, said the debate showed “conservative trolls are always looking for nonsense to feign outrage about”.
“If endangered species conservation becomes part of ongoing culture war BS, I fear it’ll be the final nail in the coffin for lots of wildlife and wild places,” Dr Shiffman said.
How this plays out in the US and elsewhere could have lasting impacts because words mattered.
“The word ‘attack’ is inflammatory and inaccurate. Most shark bites are minor and clearly accidental, there’s no intent to harm,” he said. “And fear of sharks biting people makes others less likely to support conserving threatened and ecologically important species.”
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