Shark Attacks: Low Fatality Rates Still Equal High Anxiety

Experts say sharks are misunderstood by many who fear them the most.

July 24, 2007 — -- Fearful swimmers can breathe a little easier this summer knowing that the odds of being attacked by a shark are far less than their chances of being hit by a car, a boat or even lightning, according to statistics compiled by the Shark Research Center at the University of Florida.

Twenty-three shark attacks have been reported so far this year, 15 of them in the United States, and all of them nonfatal, said George Burgess, director of the center, which tracks the details of shark attacks worldwide.

The most recent shark attack occurred last weekend near Bellow Beach in Hawaii, where Harvey Miller, 36, felt something grab his left leg while he was snorkeling. Miller, who was rescued from the ocean by an onlooker, survived the attack.

"But we are just now getting into the summer season when we get the most activity between humans and sharks," said Burgess. "We have been averaging 61 to 62 attacks per year for the last five years."

Four fatalities resulted from 44 shark attacks last year, according to Burgess' International Shark Attack File.

If you consider how many humans enter the water annually, relative to the level of reported shark attacks, these numbers are not that alarming, experts say.

"When you consider the great numbers of human beings in the water on any given day and the large number of shark predators that are in the same water, it's actually very surprising there aren't more incidents every year," said Dr. Robert Hueter, director of The Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory. "I think that's just proof that sharks aren't targeting human beings because if they were, they must not be very good at it."

Alarming or not, everyone seems to have sharks on the brain at this time of year, thanks to the annual onset of shark attack stories in the media and popular television programming like the Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

Despite people's perpetual fear of the animals, experts told ABC News that sharks are largely misunderstood.

Sharks Make Mistakes, Too

The most common misconception about sharks, they say, is that they intentionally prey on humans.

"The bulk [of shark attacks] are mistaken identity in which the sharks interpret the activity of humans as the movements of the normal prey items," said Burgess. "Most are hit-and-run attacks because the shark takes a quick grab and goes away and the damage isn't too bad."

Sharks are simply inquisitive and can make mistakes when it comes to identifying sources of food in dimly lit waters.

"[Sharks] are either curious or at depths they mistake humans for seals," said Sean R. VanSommeran, executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, which researches the conservation of sharks. "Eventually they lose interest in anything other than what they're looking for."

Often times, sharks will mistake shiny jewelry for the gills of fish that they eat, says VanSommeran.

They're Not All That Bad

"There are more than 400 species of sharks and there are only a few that fit the bill as potentially dangerous animals," said VanSommeran. "But people don't learn necessarily to think about the less glamorous or menacing species of shark."

Movies that highlight the dangerous nature of sharks — like the classic 1975 film "Jaws" — are said to be one of the key reasons so many people are terrified of all things shark. While only around 30 species of sharks have a history of attacking humans, people tend to assume that all sharks are dangerous, experts say.

"The big misperception that people have from watching the movies and reading the books is that all sharks are the same and they are equated in people's minds to the great white shark," said Hueter, whose laboratory is the largest in the world focused on the biology of sharks and rays.

As a rule, one expert says, sharks six feet or longer are generally the most dangerous, simply because their size alone can harm an average human on contact.

Man-Eating Shark

While humans may worry about their next swim in the ocean, researchers are similarly concerned about the well-being of the shark population, which has been steadily declining over the last few years.

Humans kill approximately 50 million sharks every year, according to Burgess' research.

Overfishing, or when sharks are inadvertently caught by fishermen's nets that are intended for other marine life, is a chief cause of the population decline, says Marie Levine, executive director of Shark Institute and archivist of The Global Shark Attack File.

The high demand for fin soup, an Asian delicacy, is another shark killer, says Levine, along with the destruction of sharks' habitats and pollution.

"[Sharks] are incredibly beautiful animals and are absolutely vital animals," said Levine. "They are desperately in need of protection."

Don't Worry, Even Though We Know You Will

No matter what precautions humans take — from not splashing around in shallow waters to never swimming in warm oceans at night — shark attacks are bound to happen.

The only way to significantly cut your risk of shark attacks is to never enter the ocean at all, experts say, which is an impractical solution to a scenario that very few will encounter in their lifetimes.

"The risk factor of shark attacks is much lower than all the other things that are much more frequent in our daily lives that people shouldn't worry about it," said Hueter. "But we do because of the psychological fear factor of the thought of being eaten alive by an animal. It's hard to get that out of people's minds."

So while you may be a little hesitant the next time you visit the beach, keep in mind that not all sharks are out to get you. In fact, they may be just as scared of you as you are of them.