Hunting the truth on sharks

Chris Neff is transforming his lifelong fascination with sharks into critical thinking and political debate about whether the threat these predators pose warrants a frenzy of hype.

In July 1916, during a summer heatwave, a series of shark attacks along the coast of New Jersey left four people dead and another seriously injured. The attacks, over a 12-day period, caused widespread panic, and as newspapers shocked their readers with graphic accounts of the incidents, the vicious man-eating shark soon became part of American folklore.

Chris Neff

Almost 60 years later author Peter Benchley revived the theme of the rogue great white shark in his book Jaws, which was turned into a memorably scary blockbuster movie by Steven Spielberg.

In Australia the surgeon and Sydney graduate Sir Victor Coppleson wrote a book in 1958, Shark Attack, which also spread the idea of rogue sharks. Coppleson said the pattern and frequency of attacks suggested the likelihood of a single shark ignoring its natural prey and acquiring a taste for human flesh.

Today, research indicates that the ratio of shark attacks is on the increase, with more swimmers than ever before in the water. In the league table of shark attacks the United States leads the world, followed by Australia and South Africa.

But Christopher Neff, who worked as a lobbyist and congressional staffer during eight years in Washington, is seeking to challenge Coppleson's rogue shark theory, arguing that sharks do not set out to attack or eat people.

He is studying for a PhD at the University of Sydney, investigating how public policy and the media frame shark attacks and by doing so, he is the first PhD student in the world to focus on the politics of shark attacks.

Raised in a small town in Connecticut, New England, he had a childhood interest in sharks. In third grade, he already had an 11-foot long cardboard cut-out of a great white shark hanging in his room and loved reading books on sharks. "The fascination was there early on," he says. "What wasn't there was any political analysis to go with it."

Neff's interest in politics also developed at an early age and he went on to complete a BA in Political Science at James Madison University in Virginia. At 23 he became an aide-de-camp of Senator John Warner of Virginia and also volunteered for Senator John McCain's campaign, helping out at the national headquarters in Virginia.

In 2002, he became the first lobbyist in the US on behalf of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, campaigning for the repeal of the 'Dont Ask, Dont Tell' legislation which requires the discharge of openly gay military personnel.
He believes getting a higher degree and studying overseas are important. "I think every American should try to get a degree in a foreign country," he says. "You get twice the experience if you go abroad."

He completed a master's in public policy with honours in November 2007 at the University of Sydney. Studying for that degree, he worked on carnivore conservation and encountered the riddle that is the predator policy paradox. "The question of how we protect species that we need protecting from is fascinating," he says.

Shark

Chris Neff is keen to dispel the myth that sharks deliberately eat people.

His master's studies included a focus on African lions and the way South Africa educates the public on cohabitation with predatory creatures. That led him to ask whether the same principles could be applied to sharks, and became the basis for his PhD research. He started in March last year and will take three and a half years to complete his degree.

He adds: "The central question is how governments develop public policies to protect endangered sharks when the sharks may harm the public.

"Shark attacks are very scary, low-probability events that the government has to try and protect people from, both in terms of public safety and in terms of managing the public's perception of risk. If there is a loss in public confidence, this becomes a safety issue as well."

He is keen to dispel the idea that sharks deliberately eat people. "I don't believe that sharks attack and kill people in the way that I attack the buffet at Star City. Swimmers who enter their territory are in the way, not on the menu."

He regards Coppleson's theory as outdated and alarmist. "There was a straight line from the New Jersey attacks of 1916 to Coppleson's theory, but there is new data now and we need to update the rogue shark theory," he says.

Neff's study is the first social sciences PhD on shark attacks and is a self-funded project. It is supervised by Dr Betsi Beem from the Department of Government and International Relations.

"I am really excited to do this PhD because I think it will help people understand sharks better and advance the concept of carnivore conservation," he says.