Where Have All the Shark Attacks Gone?

Aug. 24, 2006 — -- With the dog days of summer approaching, the winner in the battle of man vs. shark this year will most certainly be the 'humans' -- by a tidal wave.

"All in all, it's been a relatively quiet year [for shark attacks] from both the standpoint of the summer in the United States, but also a worldwide," said George Burgess, director of the Shark Research Center at the University of Florida, who keeps the world's most accurate list of shark attacks.

So far this year, 24 sharks have attacked people in the United States, and there have been no human fatalities, according to Burgess' International Shark Attack File, the only global database that tracks such things. You might not believe it from all the attention shark attacks receive, but last year, there were only 39 attacks in the United States, resulting in one human death. This year 38 attacks have been recorded and four people have died so far.

"We're likely to be on target for the same numbers we had last year," said Burgess. "It may be actually lower in the numbers of attacks -- which would continue a trend that we've seen as a total number decline over the last three or four years."

As beaches are more popular than ever, and the number of people engaging in water sports is on the rise, some say the likelihood of more humans encountering sharks should be growing. But so far, that hasn't translated into more shark attacks. Shark researchers and conservationists are increasingly concerned that mankind is having a much more damaging effect on sharks than the sharks are having on people.

"We're killing over 100 million sharks a year," said Burgess. "No one wants to get bit, and our thoughts go out to victims of shark attacks -- but when you consider that [there have been] only four deaths a year, it's not a very large number."

Trying to Save the Sharks

Sharks are under attack from humans from many fronts, ranging from water pollution to changes in the food chain, but the largest threat to sharks overall comes from fishing.

"Millions of blue sharks are caught by accident by fishing gear intended for tuna and swordfish," said Nick Wenger, a researcher at the Scripps Center for Aquatic Research at the University of California-San Diego. "Because those sharks have no economic value, those sharks are normally discarded dead back into the water."

Wenger and his team have been working on ways to prevent sharks from getting caught up in the nets meant for other fish by tracking their movements with sensors they attach directly to sharks in order to know how and where they swim.

"What we've found that's quite interesting is that, for instance, the thresher sharks -- some of which are over 300 pounds or 500 pounds -- spend most of their time near the surface of the water, mostly, at night," said Wenger. "The nets are 11 meters below the surface. … We're looking at moving the nets lower, to 20 meters below. That might not catch the sharks, but could get the swordfish."

Even if new regulations on fishing were to prevent some shark deaths, it would still take many years, if not generations, for the species as a whole to recover.

"One of the most important sharks on the east coast, the sandbar shark, is going to take 60 years or more to recover, even if we put in very stringent regulations," said Burgess. "So there's going to be an entire generation of humans that won't have access to that shark."

The So-Called Summer of the Shark Attack

The decline in shark populations has been going on for years, leading many to wonder why so many publications proclaimed the summer before Sept. 11, 2001 the "summer of the shark."

"It certainly drew the attention of the media -- but was it the summer of the shark?" asked Burgess, who fielded perhaps 35 to 40 media requests per day during the summer of 2001. "Well, it actually was less shark attacks than the year before."

Approximately 50 sharks attacked humans in the United States in 2001, and while that number is about a dozen higher than the average in more recent years, it certainly was not the statistical peak.

"The shark attack is always a story and it always will be," said Burgess. "What happened in the end is that you kind of had a jump-on-the-bandwagon sort of thing."

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, that bandwagon came to a screeching halt.

"I took four or five calls that morning before the planes hit," said Burgess. "I had no more calls on sharks until late November, early December … and they were asking about whether the media had paid too much attention to the shark attacks."

Sharks Attacks, While Incredibly Rare, Still Happen

On average, nine swimmers in the United States fatally drown each day, compared with four shark attack deaths worldwide for the entire last year. But shark attacks still do occur.

"A vast majority of shark attacks are just a case of mistaken identity," said Wenger. "The silhouette of a person on a surf board looks something like the silhouette of a seal from a shark looking up."

The International Shark Attack File suggests the following tips for reducing the risk of a shark Encounter.

Always stay in groups, since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.

Do not wander too far from shore. This isolates an individual and, additionally, places one far away from assistance.

Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.

Do not enter the water if bleeding from an open wound or if menstruating. A shark's olfactory ability is acute.

Wearing shiny jewelry is discouraged because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.

Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial fisherman, especially if there are signs of bait fish or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.

Sightings of porpoises do not indicate the absence of sharks. Both often eat the same food items.

Use extra caution when waters are murky, and avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing. Sharks see contrast particularly well.

Refrain from excess splashing, and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.

Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep drop-offs. These are favorite hangouts for sharks.

Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present, and evacuate the water if sharks are seen while there. And, of course, do not harass a shark if you see one.

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