Shark Season: Hazard or Hype?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 22, 2003

"Shark Bites Man!"—the drama and terror of such attacks make them reliable headline-grabbers.

Yet despite recurring waves of publicity, statistics from the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) show that shark attacks worldwide have declined slightly over the last two years.

A recent University of Florida report also illustrates the overall rarity of such human-shark encounters—even as increasing multitudes of beachgoers take to the surf in search of summer fun.

Global shark attacks declined in 2002 for the second year in a row, according to data from ISAF. Sixty unprovoked attacks occurred around the world in 2002, down from 72 reported in 2001 and 85 in 2000, reported biological scientist George Burgess, director of the ISAF.

ISAF is a comprehensive shark attack record jointly administered by the American Elasmobranch Society and the Florida Museum of Natural History on the campus of the University of Florida.

Unprovoked attacks are defined by the ISAF as "incidents where an attack on a live human by a shark occurs in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark." Provoked attacks, which are not represented in the statistics, include incidents such as fishermen bitten by sharks caught in their nets, or divers attacked after touching and/or harassing sharks.

While overall shark attack numbers may be surprisingly small, even fewer of the reported attacks are considered "serious." Just three deaths were reported in 2002, after worldwide totals of five in 2001 and 13 in 2000. Last year's fatal attacks occurred in Australia and Brazil.

"Most of the attacks fall into the category of hit-and-run attacks in which the shark makes a quick grab and then releases the victim," Burgess reported. "The injuries are relatively minor, often comparable to what one would see in a dog bite."

In a continuing trend, the bulk of the year 2000 attacks (82 percent) occurred in North American waters, including 47 in the United States and one in the Bahamas. Florida saw the majority of U.S. attacks (29) followed by Hawaii (6), California (4), North Carolina (3), South Carolina (2), Oregon (1) and Texas (1).

Surfers were most likely to be attacked, suffering 32 incidents. Swimmers and waders were involved in 22 attacks and divers/snorkelers were victims in four.

Attacks a Function of Who's in the Water

The yearly fluctuations in attack levels could result from a variety of oceanographic, meteorological, and even economic conditions.

Continued on Next Page >>


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