for National Geographic News
Summer is around the corner, and soon beach lovers will flock to their favorite coastal areas to soak up the sun and plunge into the surf. Many of them, however, will be keeping a nervous lookout for one of Earth's most misunderstood predatorsthe shark.
Thanks to the perennially popular movie Jaws and other dramatic portrayals of vicious attacks, many people think sharks are savage predators posing a grave threat to anyone entering the water. The truth is that while attacks do occur, and are a potential threat to humans, they don't deserve a very prominent place on our list of worries.
Bees, wasps, and snakes are responsible for far more deaths each year than sharks, according to data compiled in the International Shark Attack File (ISAF). The ISAF is a compilation of all known shark attacks maintained by the American Elasmobranch Society and the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Worldwide, sharks attack only about 50 to 75 people each year, and only 8 to12 of the attacks are actually fatal. In the United States, the annual risk of being killed by a lightning strike is some 30 times greater than the risk of death by shark attack. In fact, more people are killed driving to and from the beach than by sharks.
But while shark attacks against humans are relatively rare, the human onslaught on shark populations is another matter.
"The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we're catching one billion pounds of sharks each year," said Robert Hueter, director of the Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research. "That's many, many millions of animals."
Man Bites Shark
For the past 100 million years or so, sharks have inhabited the world's seas in basically unchanged form. They are successful predators that have long been ensconced at or near the top of the food chainuntil recently.
Today, heavy human pressure is making a big impact on shark populations. "By the population measures we have, numbers are down," said Hueter. "In some cases it's subtle but in some cases it's a pretty dramatic drop within the last 25 years."
Sharks are falling victim to an ever more efficient global fishing industry, which sometimes operates with little regulation. "Worldwide, sharks are taken for their meat," Hueter said. "In a lot of developing nations, [shark] is a major source of protein in people's diets. In some countries, Mexico is an example, they don't target one species while fishing, they just bring in what they catch. They're catching a lot of sharks."
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