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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Sharks (Selachimorpha) have an important ecological function and are both valued and feared by people around the world. Shark bite incidents present a high consequence risk in terms of human health and safety. In Australia, shark interactions with humans are most frequently recorded for the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas), and tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier). Human anxiety of encountering sharks may be elevated relative to the actual level of risk due to intensive media coverage, which typically emphasizes a narrative of highly abundant animals actively targeting human water users. This narrative is not supported by scientific evidence. Public perceptions of shark incidents can strongly influence shark management efforts. To help management, we set out to understand how people change their behavior in response to shark incidents and why some behaviors do or do not change. In October 2019, we used 4 participatory workshops, attended by 60 people, and a visual communication approach to study the socioecological context of beachgoer behavior to sharks in a high shark incident region around Ballina and Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia. Of all recorded comments captured at the workshops (174), 91% mentioned changes in behavior following the reported incidents, and 9% indicated no behavior change. The behavior changes generally did not result in less beach use but in different types of use. When beachgoers visited the beach and used the ocean, they implicitly asked themselves the following questions in selecting activities and behaviors: (1) how much risk do I think is present, (2) how much risk am I willing to accept, and (3) how much do I trust the information and advice available to me to mitigate these risks? We found that families, teenagers, and experienced beachgoers (such as surfers) used different socioecological information on which to base their risk assessments and that these groups had different risk profiles. Despite these variations, a common finding across beachgoers was a strong desire to improve the quality of publicly available and locally relevant information on risk factors. Using the graphic visualization of our findings for communication purposes can help beachgoers contextualize their own risk perception and learn from how others have changed their reported behavior. Sharing of behavior change information and risk reduction strategies can help target public investment in mitigation measures and may encourage further risk reduction strategies and policies to be implemented.

Additional Files

vanPuttenEtAl-Appendix.docx (206 kB)
Appendix figures and tables