Agency in human–shark encounter

Publication Name

Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space


Shark bite is exceptionally rare. And yet, representations of human–shark interactions are most often framed as inherently dangerous. The ‘shark attack’ trope has been widely critiqued as sensationalist and misleading. This image creates two further limitations: it offers a one-dimensional representation of sharks and overlooks crucial factors shaping human–shark relations. Human–wildlife conflict is focus of extensive research, in conservation biology and, increasingly, the social sciences. Calls have been made for deeper investigation of social and cultural factors in conflict. This paper seeks to present a more nuanced account of human–shark relations, through analysis of events in Western Australia in 2011–12: five fatal shark bites and implementation of a lethal shark management policy. Specifically, the paper reports on empirical research with the people most likely to encounter sharks, that is those who undertake recreational, professional, and/or volunteer activities in or on the sea. The paper deploys the concept of agency as a framework for recognising diverse capacities of sharks and distributed agency in production of events. It finds: (i) ocean-users know sharks to have diverse behaviours and agency to elicit caution, ambivalence, fear, and attraction, and to influence attitudes, actions, and engagement with the sea; (ii) embodied oceanic relations shape people’s everyday lives, attitudes towards the ocean, sharks and the risks they pose, and sense of self; and (iii) representation combines with numerous other factors – including potential danger posed by some sharks, reports of incidents, frenzied response, and personal context – to shape events. These findings offer alternate interpretation of human–shark relations, social-cultural drivers of human–wildlife conflict, and evidence of co-existence.

Open Access Status

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Funding Sponsor

University of Wollongong



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