Saturday, August 20, 2011

Seychelles Shark Incidents: statistical anomaly put media and authorities in overdrive

Shark frenzy is in high gear once again - and not due to the sharks, but by the news media which can seem to have a taste for blood greater than any ocean predator I have encountered. Recently, in the Seychelles, two separate attacks by sharks on bathers have occurred within two weeks of each other. That by itself is statistically unusual. Add to that the fact that it has been several decades since the last shark-human incident in these Indian Ocean islands and you have the basic ingredients for a sensationalized story and a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the Seychelles authorities.

With the most recent incident - a young man attacked while snorkeling in shallow water - several news outlets are devoting airtime and print space to both, the human tragedy - the attack was witnessed from shore by the young man's newly wed wife - and the ensuing hunt that is currently taking place for the "killer" shark.

The news media is taking every guess, hypothesis, crackpot assumption, and misconception as facts in this attack - I have read it was a white shark (unlikely based on the multiple bites this latest bather received); a bull shark measuring 18 feet in length (a size which would be a modern miracle in marine biology); a "rogue" shark as the culprit (whatever that means, a well-worn rationale to try to explain what amounts to the normal actions of a large predator in its natural environment); and so on.

And then there is the reaction of the authorities, enlisting the aid of local fisherman to deploy hooked and baited longlines in an attempt to catch the specific shark responsible. Now, I can understand their need to be seen as taking some sort of definitive action. They have a tourist trade to protect and perhaps merely closing beaches won't instill confidence for their tourism compared with catching and killing the shark responsible. However, in the end, there will undoubtedly be many sharks and other large fish caught and killed as a result of the shark hunt. And maybe they will succeed in catching a shark that contains human remains, but that will guarantee nothing.

The one indisputable fact is that the ocean is not our playground; it is home to a range of marine life from brine shrimp to blue whales, and every time we dip our toes in the water, we are intruding in their space. Urchins will stick and sting rays sting when stepped on, sea jellies will fire their nematocyst stinging cells when bumped, and sharks will, on very rare occasions, mistake a human as potential prey. This isn't meant to marginalize or dismiss the human tragedy or the visceral impact when a person is attacked by any predator, on land or sea. But it is the one constant whether you are using the oceans for recreation, scientific study, or commercial gain.

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1 comment:

OfficetoOcean said...

Excellent as always Richard!