The public fear sharks less when they understand their behaviour

12 December 2017

Researchers surveyed more than 500 visitors to an aquarium 'shark tunnel' to understand how attitudes to sharks and government shark policies can change.

A family looking at a shark in an aquarium. Image: iStock

An experiment involving more than 500 visitors to an aquarium ‘shark tunnel’ has shown the public’s fear of sharks reduces when they learn about the species by watching their behaviour.

University of Sydney researchers conducted a randomised experiment in Shark Valley at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium in November 2013, by setting up iPads running survey software at the entrance and exit of a ‘shark tunnel’.

Aquarium visitors were asked questions about their perceptions of sharks, their level of pride in the local shark population, their fear of sharks and shark bites, who they blame for shark bites, and the role of government in shark bite prevention. Aquarium visitors completed surveys before and after walking through the ‘shark tunnel’ while sharks swam above.

The study shows aquarium visitors were less afraid of sharks and less likely to blame sharks for incidents where a swimmer or surfer was bitten, once they better understood shark behaviour – and that sharks do not hurt humans with ‘intent’. 

Our research echoes past studies that found little public support for killing sharks and a greater desire for a conservation focus.
Dr Thomas Wynter

The study was co-authored by Dr Chris Pepin-Neff and Dr Thomas Wynter of the University of Sydney and is published in the latest edition of Marine Policy.

“When sharks bite humans, governments and policymakers fear a public outcry, and emotions are pitted against evidence-based policymaking,” said Dr Pepin-Neff. 

“This study challenges perceived public support for lethal measures, such as Western Australia’s ‘serious and imminent threat policy’, which sees sharks who swim by beaches hunted and killed.” 

Co-author Dr Thomas Wynter added: “Our research echoes past studies that found little public support for killing sharks and a greater desire for a conservation focus.”

Waste dumping, fishing, and the presence of other marine life in ecosystems are thought to be conducive to shark bites, according to the Marine Policy paper, and its co-authors say these factors should be more promptly investigated following any bite incident as a means of challenging inaccurate perceptions of ‘rogue’ or ‘killer’ sharks. 

The study, funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation and the SEA LIFE Trust at the Sydney Aquarium, comes as an Australian senate committee prepares to publish its final report on the efficacy and regulation of shark mitigation and deterrent measures.

Dr Pepin-Neff was an expert contributor at the committee’s public hearing earlier this year, after he made a written submission to the inquiry about current and emerging shark mitigation and deterrent measures and their alternatives.

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)

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