Florida Shark Attacks Spotlight Real, But Rare, Danger

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Bonfil, whose recent work includes the hand capture and tagging of great white sharks, said people should arm themselves with information before taking to the water.

"I'd never say that the sea is absolutely safe. I'd say assume the responsibility and the knowledge that there is a potential danger of encountering a shark," he cautioned.

"If we go to the Serengeti and walk in the bush, we should know that we might encounter a lion. But for some reason people assume that the sea is safe and that we have the right to play safely," he said. "We tend to forget that it's the natural habitat of sharks and other predators."

Still, statistics suggest that fear of shark attack shouldn't deter beachgoers.

The United States averages only about one shark-attack fatality every two years. By comparison, lightning kills more than 41 people each year, on average, in the coastal U.S. alone.

Each year there are 50 to 70 confirmed shark attacks and 5 to 15 shark-attack fatalities around the world, according to the International Shark Attack File, which is maintained by the American Elasmobranch Society and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Though Florida has been a relative hotbed of shark activity, with an average of 21 annual attacks since 1990, the death on Saturday of Jamie Marie Daigle was only the fourth fatality in the state in the past 15 years.

"Statistically it's like the lottery … . I'm cautious but conscious that my chances of being that one-in-millions-guy are very low," Bonfil, the Wildlife Conservation Society shark researcher, said.

Shark experts say media coverage of shark attacks is unfailingly heavy-handed and tends to spike fear of sharks in a predictable summer pattern.

The summer of 2001, for example, saw an explosion of shark-attack media hype and was even heralded on the cover of Time magazine as the "Summer of the Shark." Yet 2001 was statistically average: The year saw 76 shark attacks and 5 fatalities worldwide, compared to 85 attacks and 12 fatalities in 2000.

"It's frustrating to try and understand why so much attention is focused on sharks [rather than other dangerous animals]," Bonfil said. "When these [attacks] happen so close to each other, that's when the paranoia starts."

"We've had two serious attacks back-to-back," Burgess added. "It's a tragedy, and we can't short-change the implications of that. But the reality is that this is still a very rare event. Our chances of being attacked are very slim, and those of being killed are slimmer yet."

Sharks, themselves, don't enjoy such favorable odds.

Although they kill fewer than 20 people a year, sharks suffer greatly at human hands. According to the American Elasmobranch Society, between 20 and 100 million sharks die each year due to fishing activity.

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