5 min read

It's Time To Stop Calling Our Waters 'Shark-Infested'

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/ryn413/" style="text-decoration: none;">Ryan Espanto/Flickr/CC BY 2.0</a></p>

The story of an Australian man who leapt aboard a dead whale has floated through most corners of the internet since Saturday. And few media reports have left out two key facts: That his mother describes the 26-year-old cetacean surfer as an "idiot," and that the carcass of a dead humpback off the coast of Australia attracts sharks. So many sharks, in fact, that shark-infested-whale-carcass-for-laughs">several outlets have opted to call the surrounding water "shark-infested."

Like any good cliché, it's possible the phrase "shark-infested" started off as an evocative metaphor, setting a scene of water churning with triangular fins and gnashing teeth. But, just as sharks are much more than fins and jaws, we can do better than deeming a group of sharks as an "infestation."

(Jon Rawlinson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

To pick nits: Calling a patch of the ocean "shark-infested" is a bit like calling New York City "human-infested." Infestation, while describing a swelling mass or swarm, also lends an air of pestilence, distress or harassment. It's an unpleasant and unusual scenario - an infestation of nits, for instance.

But unlike a louse on a scalp or a roach in a pantry, animals who have entered a human environment with the potential to cause damage, the average shark in the ocean is not a pest. By eating whale carcasses, sharks instead play critical roles in recycling nutrients in the ocean ecosystem. A 2013 report in the journal PLOS ONE noted how normally solitary great white sharks gather to feast on the blubber of deceased whales. "Scavenging is a really important component of the foraging ecology of predators," University of Miami marine scientist and study author Neil Hammerschlag told Livescience.

(Tchami/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

When sharks are removed from their habitats en masse, as a group of marine biologists argued in a 2007 paper in Science, the negative effects can be wide-ranging. The overfishing of sharks led to increased populations of rays and skates, the ecologists said. And without predatory sharks to keep them in check, large numbers of hungry rays and skates may have contributed the devastation of shellfish in the Atlantic.

Too many of any species anywhere can cause problems, of course. But that's infrequently the case with shark-infested waters - more often, the sharks are simply living in their natural habitats. (Meadows are rarely butterfly-infested, and dolphins seem incapable of infestation.)

Beyond doing a disservice to the feeding behaviors of these fish, shark-infested is yet another mark against a species with more than their fair share of public relations problems. Let sharks teem, abound, bustle or brim. Ban infest.