Florida

Shark attacks down worldwide and ‘nosedive’ in Florida waters, researchers say

Ocean Ramsey, a shark researcher and advocate, swims with a great white shark off the shore of Oahu. Ramsey told The Associated Press earlier this month that images of her swimming next to a huge great white shark prove that these top predators should be protected, not feared.
Ocean Ramsey, a shark researcher and advocate, swims with a great white shark off the shore of Oahu. Ramsey told The Associated Press earlier this month that images of her swimming next to a huge great white shark prove that these top predators should be protected, not feared. AP

Looks like it’s safe to get back in the water.

Shark attacks, still rare despite movie plot lines and one fatal attack this year off Cape Cod, declined dramatically worldwide in 2018 and plummeted by nearly half in Florida waters, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File, an annual report released Monday morning.

The steep drop, a statistical anomaly, suggests swimmers may be getting better at heeding warnings, research director Gavin Naylor said in a statement.

“It begs the question of whether we’re seeing fewer bites because there are fewer sharks — that would be the ‘glass half-empty’ interpretation. Or it could be that the general public is heeding the advice of beach safety officials,” he said.

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A hammerhead shark swims away after being tagged by a group of University of Miami undergraduate and graduate students directed by Neil Hammerschlag as part of the University of Miami Shark Research & Conservation Program on Biscayne Bay. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Florida usually tops the chart in unprovoked attacks across the U.S., with Volusia County annually crowned the shark attack capital of the world. But last year, the number in the state fell by nearly half, from 31 to 16. Naylor said that’s likely linked to a sharp drop in last year’s number of migrating blacktip sharks, the species usually linked to attacks in state waters.

Blacktips normally chase bait south from North Carolina down the coast, often gathering in schools of about 14,000 off Palm Beach and Volusia counties. But an usually warm winter kept bait away, so the sharks steered clear. Florida Atlantic University shark expert Stephen Kajiura, who conducts aerial surveys, counted just 4,000 this year, Naylor told the Herald.

“When temperatures are higher than 25° C, fish don’t spawn and when fish don’t spawn there’s no reason for the sharks to be there. It’s not that the sharks have died off,“ he said.

With warming oceans, migration patterns could change. But there’s not enough data to connect 2018’s single blip to any kind of climate change effect, he said.

The number of attacks worldwide dropped from 88 to 66, with four fatal attacks, down from an annual average of six. The U.S. continues to rank first worldwide, even as the number of attacks fell from 53 to 32, the study found.

Despite last year’s decline, Naylor said globally the number of bites is gradually rising as populations swell and the number of people in the water increases. Fatal attacks, however, have been dropping for decades as beach officials get faster and better at responding, he said.

Naylor singled out one hot spot to watch: Cape Cod, where great white sharks attacked swimmers twice, including the first fatality in 82 years. Naylor said rebounding seal populations protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act are drawing greater numbers of the massive predators.

“An increase in sharks is a symptom of restoring healthy oceans,” he said. “What the public needs to do is become informed about these animals, understand their behavior patterns and listen to the guidelines issued by beach safety patrols.”

The International Shark Attack File, started in 1958, is the only ongoing, verified record of shark bites worldwide, with more than 6,200 attacks dating back to the 1500s. The research program releases an annual report to document shark attack trends.

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Jenny Staletovich is a Florida native who covers the environment and hurricanes for the Miami Herald. She previously worked for the Palm Beach Post and graduated from Smith College.
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