May 21, 2002 -- Beachgoers have more reason to worry about falling coconuts than being bitten by a shark, researchers said today.
In an effort to improve the media image of one of the ocean's most notorious predators and to try to subdue coverage of shark attacks this coming summer, shark researchers and representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration talked about threats to the animal's population levels and reviewed shark attack statistics in recent years to make the case that the problem stems from people — not sharks.
"Shark attacks are more a result of human patterns rather than shark patterns," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Fla. "Human populations influence shark attacks more than sharks do."
Shark Attacks Take Lunch Breaks
Burgess pointed to recent data that suggested people were 15 times more likely to be killed by falling coconuts than by a shark.
More to the point, Burgess showed how incidences of shark attacks last summer and in recent years have exactly mirrored the number of people, particularly surfers, who were in the water. His data showed that more attacks occur between the hours of 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. even though sharks are more likely to frequent shallow waters from dusk to dawn when their main prey — small fish — are more abundant.
Other data showed that shark attacks in general dropped between the hours of 12 and 2 p.m.
"Does this mean that sharks suddenly stop feeding between 12 and 2? No — it's really a result of human feeding behavior. This is when people return to their condos to get lunch," Burgess said, explaining there are generally less people in the water at these times.
Summer of the Shark
Last year's coverage of shark attacks began when an 8-year-boy was attacked by a shark on July 4 while swimming in shallow surf in the ocean near Pensacola, Fla. The boy survived and his severed arm was reattached in surgery. The dramatic story prompted widespread coverage of shark incidents for the remainder of the summer.
There were 91 incidents of shark encounters last summer, Burgess said, including 76 unprovoked attacks on people by sharks. That number actually dropped from the previous year when there were 85 unprovoked attacks by sharks on people.
Most of the attacks (55) occurred in the United States, particularly in the populous regions of Florida, California and Hawaii, he said. Although sharks killed five people last year (three in the United States), most of the incidents were minor bites. And most of the victims, he said, were surfers. Burgess argued that surfers, generally, tend to shun shark warnings in favor of catching big waves. Their numbers have also increased over the years.
"The number of attacks on surfers has gone up dramatically since the 1960s," he said. "We can thank the Beach Boys for this."
Although the shark researchers welcome general interest in sharks, they made clear they didn't welcome the flurry of media attention last summer.
"Last summer for about two months I couldn't do much work because of the attention that was placed on sharks," said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla.
Attack Numbers Mirror Beach Crowds
But coverage wasn't completely off the mark. The researchers concede that shark attacks have risen in recent years as the number of people going to the beach has increased. Data has shown that beach attendance in the United States has increased by about 10 percent over the last 10 years and the number of shark-human incidences has increased by nearly the same rate.
Crowded beaches, they said, guarantee encounters.
"Like summer thunderstorms, there will be more shark incidents this summer," said Hueter.
In fact, Burgess said there are likely many more close encounters every summer than are actually recorded — or even noticed.
"Most of us have probably swum within 15 feet of a shark and didn't know it," he said. "Most of the time, sharks don't want to have anything to do with us."
Rebecca Lent, of NOAA's fisheries management division, argued that more concern should be placed on saving the species than fearing them. She said that populations of sharks, which date back more than 400 million years in the fossil record, have dropped dramatically since the mid-1970s due to overfishing and interference by boats in the animal's migratory routes.
To avoid encounters with sharks this summer, Burgess offered a few tips:
Don't go into the water while bleeding.
Don't wear shiny jewelry while swimming in the ocean.
Swim with other people.
Avoid murky waters where sharks seek out smaller fish for prey.
Don't swim at dusk, when sharks are more likely to be feeding.