Waterlines: Confluence and Hope through Environmental Communication. The 15th biennial Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE). June 17-21, 2019, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Listening to ocean user perspectives on shark management: Respect for marine life, hope for technology, and anger at the media

Peter Simmons's picture
Author(s): 
Simmons, Peter
Mehmet, Michael
Redshaw, Sarah
Callaghan, Kane
Category of presentation: 
Scholarly papers
Abstract: 

Context

Sharks pose a small statistical risk of harm in Australia but are salient in national consciousness (Neff & Heuter, 2013). Beaches have been described as a 'cultural centrepiece' (Walton and Shaw, 2017) and authorities in several states must attend carefully to shark-related incidents and community sentiment. Governments and authorities make decisions about how best to manage human/shark interactions based on various sources of information, including perspectives of different user or stakeholder groups (Skubel et al, 2019). It is increasingly important for social scientists and communicators to become more involved in gauging public opinion and to broaden the information base for policy decisions related to human/wildlife conflicts. Social networking sites provide a relatively new source of information to exacerbate conflict, or to aid its understanding and resolution. By changing the nature of information that is available they can change the shape of a conflict itself (Zeitzoff 2017). Opinions expressed in social networking sites on human/wildlife conflict are often nuanced (Barry, 2014) and provide multiple and subtle dimensions of attitudes and thinking when analysed qualitatively (Mehmet & Simmons, 2018). 

Research question

What are ocean user and grass roots community member attitudes to shark management?

Method

This study explored perceptions of sharks and attitudes to managing shark/human interaction using Appraisal, a systemic functional research approach (Martin and Rose, 2007) to analyse comments from public social media discussions over 13 months (2016-2017), and focus groups with a range of Australian coastal users.

Conclusions

There was general support for professional and surveillance protection of popular beaches, and greater emphasis on individual responsibility when entering the ocean at unpatrolled and remote beaches. Harm from sharks can be tragic but there is an overwhelming preference for approaches to management that respects sharks and other marine life. People respect the ocean as the shark’s home but also want to enjoy beach recreation. Widespread hopes and support for investment in technology such as drones may in part be explained as a mental reconciliation of tension between beliefs and aspirations. There is considerable anger at media creating and profiting from disproportionate fear of sharks, which has real consequences for lifestyles and livelihoods.

Contributions to knowledge

Social networking sites may help authorities and their communicators to align policy with community expectations and help strengthen public trust by increasing transparency in human and non-human conflict decision-making. This paper highlights multiple dimensions of attitudes to, and thinking about, sharks, both within individuals and across communities. Further research should explore aspects of context that influence attitudes to the acceptability of different management approaches.