Shark attacks up, but the risk is small

A great hammerhead shark swims past a diver in the Bahamas.
A great hammerhead shark swims past a diver in the Bahamas.

Who can forget the shark attacks in the “Jaws” movies or not imagine the deadly plight of Worl War II-era downed pilots and sailors being circled by man-eating sharks?

Who can ignore the gruesome footage of local TV news stations showing the latest victim of a shark attack?

A summary report (The 2015 International Shark Attack File) recently released by the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Florida Program for Shark Research (curated by George H. Burgess program director and coordinator of museum operations) says there were 98 unprovoked shark attacks in 2015 -- the highest number on record, surpassing the previous high of 88 recorded in the year 2000.

Six deaths (two in Reunion and single incidents in Australia, New Caledonia, Hawaii, and Egypt) resulted from the attacks, or about half of the 11 deaths experienced from shark attacks in 2000.

The good news for scuba divers is that they don’t seem to be a preferred food item for sharks. There were no unprovoked shark attacks on scuba divers in 2015.

The good news for the others is that the odds of being attacked by a shark are very low.

Significantly, the 2015 shark attack summary did not list any unprovoked shark attacks in Monroe County, home of the Florida Keys -- which is a water sports mecca visited by divers from around the world.

The museum’s shark attack summary defines an unprovoked attack as an attack on a live human in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark. 

The report says provoked attacks usually are initiated by humans and occur when: a diver is bitten after grabbing a shark or is attacked while spearfishing; sharks are being fed; or, when sharks are being unhooking or removed from fishing net.

The summary does not consider attacks involving sharks and divers in public aquaria or research holding-pens, shark-inflicted scavenge damage to already dead humans (most often drowning victims), and other incidents involving provocation by humans occurring in or out of the water as unprovoked.

 “Unprovoked attacks have slowly grown over the years. But that's only because more people are in the water than ever before,” Burgess says.

“Surfers have been the most-affected user group in recent decades, the probable result of the large amount of time spent by people engaged in a provocative activity (kicking of feet, splashing of hands, and "wipeouts") in an area commonly frequented by sharks, the surf zone,” according to Burgess.

During 2015, surfers and others participating in board sports made up 49 percent of the in 2015 shark attacks.

Swimmers and waders composed 42 percent of the attack victims and snorkelers accounted for 9 percent.

Florida had the most (51 percent) of the unprovoked attacks in the United States and 30.6 percent of the world total.  The 30 Florida bites in 2015 were higher than the 2014 total of 23 but did not approach the record high of 37 that occurred in 2000, according to the summary report. 

The Florida counties with the highest unprovoked shark attacks during 2015 were Brevard with eight and Volusia with seven.  

“The higher number of encounters in these two adjacent central-east coast counties is attributable to high aquatic recreational utilization of the area’s long and attractive beaches and waters by both Florida residents and tourists, including large numbers of surfers, and to the rich nature of its marine fauna,”  said the summary.

Other Florida counties experiencing shark bites were Duval (4), Palm Beach and St. Johns (2 each), and Broward, Collier, Indian River, Martin, Miami-Dade, Nassau, and St. Lucie (1 each).

 “Additional U.S. attacks were recorded in North and South Carolina (8 each), Hawaii (7), and California and Texas (2 each), with single bites reported from Mississippi and New York. The Carolina totals were a bit high for those regions and were notable in that most occurred over a relatively short period of time,” said the report.

In other parts of the world, there were 18 unprovoked attacks in Australia, 8 in South Africa, 4 in Reunion, 2 in the Canary islands, 2 in the Galapagos islands, and single incidents reported in the Bahama Islands, Brazil, Egypt, New Caledonia and Thailand.

OK, what can you do to reduce the chance of being attacked by a shark?

The report advises, “If a shark is sighted, stay calm and maintain your position in as quiet a manner as possible. Most sharks merely are curious and will leave on their own accord.”

“If you have been spearfishing and are holding your catch, release the catch and quietly exit the area. It is likely that the shark has been attracted to the sound and smells associated with your activity and it is aroused and interested in consuming your catch. Let it have it -- no catch is worth the risk of personal injury,” the summary says.

A shark’s body language tells a lot. Overt aggression can be identified when a shark rushes at you, hunches its back, lowers its pectoral (paired side) fins, swims in a rapid zigzag course, or swims with rapid up and down movements (sometimes rubbing its belly on the bottom).

Burgess has a few tips.

“For starters, avoid swimming at dawn and dusk, when sharks tend to feed. Stick together in groups (this is also a good idea for divers) and stay out of the water during and after storms. Aside from dangerous surf and rip currents, decreased water visibility can confuse sharks, prompting mistaken-identity bites.”

“Do not swim near seals, where fishing is occurring, or near other things that sharks find tasty. Sharks can sniff out blood, so don't swim with open wounds. And, leave your bling on the beach -- sharks are curious about bright, shiny objects, so don't lure them with baubles.” Burgess warns.

“If a shark actually bites, claw at its eyes and gill openings, two sensitive areas. One should not act passively if under attack as sharks respect size and power,” Burgess recommends. Playing dead is not a good shark deterrent strategy if you have been bitten by a shark.

Having a plan in place also helps. Reports of shark attacks suggest better survival outcomes when there is immediate first aid available.

The reality is that humans are much more dangerous for sharks than sharks are for humans.

Last year sharks killed six people worldwide in unprovoked attacks. In comparison, people kill 11,417 sharks are every hour according to “Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks.” (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X13000055)

Scientists agree that sharks are vitally important for the wellbeing of our oceans. Surfers, who statistics indicate are the most at risk of shark attacks, are some of shark’s most ardent supporters. The same is true for scuba divers and the organizations that represent them.

Famed American marine biologist, explorer, author, lecturer, and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Dr. Silvia Earle puts it this way: “Sharks are beautiful animals, and if you're lucky enough to see lots of them, that means that you're in a healthy ocean. You should be afraid if you are in the ocean and don't see sharks.”

People are in much greater danger of being killed by dogs than by sharks.

Dogbite.org, an organization that keeps track of dog bites, says about 1,000 people in the US require emergency care treatment for dog bite injuries every day. During 2014 there were 42 U.S. dog bite-related fatalities. For a sobering listing of people killed by dog bites during 2015 see: http://www.dogsbite.org/dog-bite-statistics-fatalities-2015.php

For more on the 2015 International Shark Attack File 2015 summary see: http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/isaf/worldwide-summary.

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 29 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier four years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers .