National Geographic News
Photo of a great white shark.

Populations of great white sharks, like this one swimming near Baja California, Mexico, are on the rise.

Jeff Mondragon, age fotostock/ Spain S.L./Corbis

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published July 7, 2014

The attack of a 40-year-old swimmer by a great white shark in southern California on Saturday has people questioning shark fishing and beach safety.

The man survived the attack with serious bite injuries. The shark, said to be a 7-foot-long (2.1 meters) juvenile great white, had been hooked on a line by an angler off the Manhattan Beach pier. The fisherman had been unable to bring the beast in, so he reportedly cut the line.

The panicked, exhausted animal then bit long-distance swimmer Steven Robles on the chest.

National Geographic spoke with George Burgess, the director of shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville and the curator of the International Shark Attack File, about the incident and the gradual rise in shark encounters since the year 1900, when reliable records began. (See "How Should We Respond When Humans and Sharks Collide?")

Were you surprised by the attack in California?

That one in California was what we call a provoked attack, because there was human provocation involved. In this case humans are the villains, not the shark, [which] was hooked ... by an angler at the time of the attack. Obviously that's a provocation. Any animal that's fighting for its life has to be cut a little break in terms of being irritable.

How common are such provoked attacks?

They're not very common; we see a few a year. This one was especially unusual. You don't usually have shark fishing and swimming together.

There [have been] a few attacks where sharks [have been pulled] onto a boat, and then fishermen have tried to remove the hooks. And sometimes you get "stupid human tricks," [like] when a diver will grab a shark by its tail. Other provoked attacks include spearfishing incidents and accidents when sharks are attracted by bait. In the California case the fisherman was reportedly using chum, so that would make it a double whammy.

Photo of surfers and swimmers in the water where a person was bitten by a shark.
Surfers and swimmers return to the ocean on July 6, 2014, one day after a swimmer was bitten by a great white shark off the coast of southern California.
Photograph by John Antczak, AP

You recently pointed out that the number of shark attacks over time appears to be on the rise. Is that still the case?

Yes. We can reasonably predict that it will continue, as long as human populations continue to rise and more people keep going into the water.

Conservation is becoming more effective, [increasing] populations of declining sharks. But the human population seems to be the most important variable.

According to the International Shark Attack File, which you curate, 2013 had 72 unprovoked attacks—the lowest number since 2009. Any idea why there was a dip last year?

We don't know exactly why. There is variation year to year because of local environmental issues, such as changes in climate, storms, availability of prey, and so on. If you look at the long-term trends, you'll see there's an increase. We continue to have more attacks even though we continue to have [fewer] sharks around the world. That's because if you put enough people in the water, there can be trouble.

In South Africa shark attacks tend to [increase] in years when they have big sardine runs along the coast, because that brings sharks to the area. In Florida there tend to be fewer attacks in years when there are many hurricanes and tropical storms, because [those get] people out of the water. Economic and social conditions also affect the trend, because sometimes many people simply can't afford to go to the beach or take a vacation.

Is global warming playing a role in the overall increase of shark attacks?

Yes, I think so. Most sharks are warm-water animals, and as water temperatures increase the animals are extending their ranges. Warmer water also means extra days that people are in the water, and that will mean more encounters. (See "Scientists Track Great White Across Atlantic for First Time.")

Some people in southern California have questioned whether shark fishing should be prevented in areas where people swim. Would you agree?

We shouldn't be fishing for sharks and swimming in the same place—that's a no-brainer. California officials should be evaluating the wisdom of allowing those two things to take place [at the same time].

It's also not real smart, in areas with great white sharks, to have a swimming beach right next to a seal beach, which is what you see in some other areas. Juvenile great whites like the one involved in the attack Saturday generally eat fish, but adult great whites eat seals. Swimming near seal beaches can be dangerous.

See video of another shark attack survivor.

In general, how are great whites faring these days?

We just published two papers on great whites in the last two weeks—one on the Atlantic and one on the Pacific—and we found that great white shark populations are on the rise. (See "Great White Sharks Thriving in U.S. Waters.") Not hugely, but they are on the return trip back up after being in a valley.

There have been some conservation measures, but the main reason is fisheries management. Most sharks don't have formal designations as endangered species, but fisheries-management measures are in play in the U.S. and in other areas of the world, especially Australia. That said, in most areas of the world there aren't fisheries-management measures in effect, or [they're not] enforced, and there are a lot of cheaters out there.

What do the fisheries managers do to protect sharks?

Managers implement restrictions on killing specific species, like great white sharks, in different ways. They can order fishermen to reduce the number of hooks or the sizes of nets, limit the sizes of catches, or limit fishing in certain areas in certain times of the year.

Great white sharks are generally not being killed as targeted fisheries; they're more commonly caught as bycatch on longlines or in nets.

There must be an equilibrium that doesn't put fishermen out of business, but also doesn't decimate the animals. It's a delicate balance. But sharks in general are still in trouble. (See "What Ate a 9-Foot Great White Shark? Another Great White?")

So what should people do to stay safe from shark attacks?

Attacks can be reduced by being smart about where you go into the water. You shouldn't ever anticipate 100 percent safety; you should understand that there's certain risk we accept [when we enter any] wilderness.

It's also a good idea to avoid going into the water at night, avoid wearing shiny metal that may look like fish scales, and stay away from sandbars and areas that drop off steeply.

(See more tips to avoid a shark attack.)

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

32 comments
Anastasia Swann
Anastasia Swann

That bite must have hurt really bad. Good thing she got knocked out or she would have been hurt alot


Ali El sawy
Ali El sawy

in my country EGYPT we have a many kinds of shark . white shark especially but it's in the deep water only. we can do your activity beside the coast and i can say that Surfers and swimmers are safe all times ....we can put a terms that Surfers and swimmers must stay beside the coast to be safe....

Dipanjan Mitra
Dipanjan Mitra

human population seems to be the most major concern all over the world.

Patty Brown
Patty Brown

The fisherman in question ought to be prosecuted for carelessly and maliciously endangering the lives of others.

Richard Columbare
Richard Columbare

Chumming the water near swimming areas to attract sharks is stupid, and doing that off of a beach, is even more stupid.   But when your attitude is "that it is all about me"then stupid things will happen.

Wylie Mitchell
Wylie Mitchell

shark fishingshould be banned from swimming areas but how about not letting people use the areas where the most attacks happen? the area isn't know as the bloody triangle for nothing.


Mary Finelli
Mary Finelli

When are people going to stop torturing other animals for 'fun'? When are we going to recognize and acknowledge the sentience of other species and begin treating those beings as such? Fishing is not a sport. The victims do not consent to it. It is a cruel and violent, usually lethal assault. Many of the victims who are caught and released also end up dying as a result of the injury and trauma they suffer. Many other species are also the victims of fishing line, hooks, etc. 


Regarding sharks, click on the image and then scroll:

http://jchernov.com/post/46445834470/man-bites-shark



Mary Finelli

FishFeel.org

george melcher
george melcher

we all know the risk getting in the water, i have know problem.timing is everything.

Mark Evans
Mark Evans

This story does not have all the facts straight.  The fisherman never cut the line (or even intended to).  Here is a link to the video taken by people with the fisherman (most likely his friends).


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESzXLQhMMlo&feature=youtube_gdata_player&app=desktop


They intentionally caused harm to the shark and even laughed when it moved toward the swimmers.  The fisherman  created an environment for danger by hooking the shark and keeping it on the line for over 30 minutes knowing that there were people nearby in the water.  


I live in the area and while I don't like the fact the juvenile white sharks hang out at the pier, most surfers and swimmers know to avoid them and there has never been an issue.  The issue is from fisherman who chum the water and taut the sharks.  This should be made illegal if it is not already.

Fra Rei
Fra Rei

Stay on land where you have a much better chance of being killed by mosquitos, spiders, snakes, hippos, alligators, cars, humans with guns, doctors, etc.  

David Alan McPartland
David Alan McPartland

The Shark panicked? How do you know? Did you get an interview with Shark after the incident? Maybe the shark just missed lunch and was hungry. Its just silly to me how someone can say what the shark was thinking when he bit the 40 year old long distance swimmer.

John Williams
John Williams

The interviewee says, "That [attack] in California was what we call a provoked attack, because there was human provocation involved. In this case humans are the villains, not the shark...".

This is nonsonse!  "Provoked" or not, an animal which attacks a human must be captured or killed. An attacked human never can be "the villain".  If attacks put  the animal species in danger of extinction, too bad -- but human life always is more important than animal life.

Better an extinct animal species than a dead or crippled human.

Miguel Belloso Bueno
Miguel Belloso Bueno

el animal que ataco tenia un anzuelo en la boca del mismo pescador se defendió

Maas WEERABANGSA
Maas WEERABANGSA

The most appropriate thing to do would be to keep away from shark territory. Let the shark be where they are and let us humans be where  humans ought to be and not in the sharks area. Have a live and let live policy and every thing would turn out  "tikety boo."

Sarah White
Sarah White

Yeah, staying out of shark territory is a great idea…. This is why I don't plan to ever swim in an ocean.

Anon Anon
Anon Anon

I'm curious to know why there are swimming beaches next to fishing and seal beaches. Do they biology in CA?

Ditte Hellemose
Ditte Hellemose

What a rude fish! here the gentle humans come and provide lovely hooks, and it dares bite! selfishfish- fish..  bad fish!

one of these days.. fish are going to get even with humans..  most likely by dying out and starving nations depending on them. oh well, silly human dependencies, will serve them right! uh, the humans - who evolved from fish once upon a long time ago.. 

Cannibalism, it's all cannibalism! 

Anath White
Anath White

I find it really unfortunate that National Geographic chooses the word "beast" for this frightened, wounded young shark. No surprise at all he struck out.

Vonne Pitcher
Vonne Pitcher

Easy solution - stay out of the shark's territory, ie the water where they swim.

Hugh Mclean
Hugh Mclean

This is a problem, but there is surely a way to tackle the problem humanely.

Aslong as America doesn't do what here in Australia is doing with the Shark culling, killing off these beautiful creatures is not the answer.

Quang P
Quang P

@Mark Evans  I do agree with what you said about  some of the fishermans actions for laughing BUT if he knew there was a shark especially a 7ft one he had to cut the line by law. I have caught sharks on that pier and they don't get that big ,which means more than likely he would have known it was a great white if he "SAW" it. The article states that hes a regular at the pier and to be honest if you are shark fishing its better to go at night because they generally do feed more often at night. More than likely he was going for something else. if what he was doing is illegal it would  only be illegal if he knew it was a great white and did not cut the line immediately.

The whole thing is on video and fish and game would have given him a ticket if it was illegal. So your deduction is incorrect.


Also according to Chapter 4 section27.05 chumming is permit in California saltwater fishing. Hence swimmers and surfers should stay away from the pier and by law they have to keep some distance


Another thing is as a swimmer and surfer myself, those people should respect the law and stay away from the pier by 100 yards .I do when I head out in the water.You and I know swimmers and surfers don't always respect that and they purposely swim over line . I am not condoning what he did when he laughed at the guy but because of this fisherman have this animosity towards swimmers and surfers I can see why they did that

Now granted the swimmer was further out than that but he should have paid more attention to his surrounding because 100lb line isn't hard to miss and he should known that especially when swimming by the pier

brendan karanasios
brendan karanasios

@David Alan McPartland : let's use a little deductive reasoning here:  look at the guys bite wounds.  they're serious for him, but knowing how powerful even a juvenile White's bite is, his wounds aren't consistent with the killing bites we find on seals and sea lions being preyed on.  Sea Lions especially can put up a heck of a lot more fight than a person, so White sharks are more than capable of delivering a killing bite to a human chest if they wanted to.  More likely,  the shark was confused and on the defensive after being hooked, as ANY animal would be, and simply bit the swimmer in it's confusion.


While it's true we can't determine what the animal was thinking when it bit the swimmer, or if the animal can think at all by our standards, we can understand behavior based on what we know about the environment at the time the incident...besides, if Great Whites were truly intent on preying on California beach-goers, you'd have daily fatal attacks.



Richard Portch
Richard Portch

@John Williams People like you are the reason we have so many problems, so incredibly small minded. It's their territory, if you venture into a wild animals territory you should expect some chance of danger. That doesn't justify killing the animal

brendan karanasios
brendan karanasios

@John Williams: humans are classified as animals the last time I checked so you'll have to be more specific.


"Better an extinct animal species than a dead or crippled human."  ...except we are all part of a worldwide food chain, and while humans and great whites don't usually eat each other, Great Whites area a part of their aquatic food chain on which billions of people depend on for food.  Great Whites eat pinnipeds (seals etc) which in turn eat the same fish as people eat.  Kill off the Great Whites, and pinnipeds will overpopulate and further reduce fish populations that could very well cause people to starve to death, especially if they are poor.


Instead of killing the offending shark, assuming one could actually locate the exact one, why not modify our own behavior to reduce the chance of attacks happening?  Why not just accept that there are risks to swimming in the open ocean?

B G
B G

@John Williams


Of course humans are the villains!!! have you still not figured this out?!!! Sharks and other animals are just "animals" in their nature trying to survive.. We are the ones with actual brains that can think, use judgements, make either smart or stupid decisions. It is a STUPID thing to fish for sharks and swim in the same area. God knows how long that shark was hooked and trying to survive.. They they free him, and there is some food there swimming by.  Do you really think the shark knows it's a human and it should just leave the swimmer alone ?? BTW, You are such an ignorant person....Go and read what happens to World  if sharks extinct 

Scout Finch
Scout Finch

@John Williams That is most definitely not a reasonable conclusion. Sharks have been on this planet for over 400 million years in some form or another. Just because evolution by a random mutation developed self-awareness for humans, does not mean we should disregard the importance of other life, quite the contrary, we should use that awareness and intelligence to do our best to co-exist with all life imaginable.


PS. This planet and nature would be doing much better without humans, so concluding human life is always more important than animals', is arguable. Have you heard the story where scientists developed a fully functional A.I smarter than all of humanity put together. After going through the history of humankind, and seeing how we pollute the earth and kill animals for fashion and other nonsense, the A.I concluded that it would be better for life itself to kill off all humans and let other life continue. An absurd story for sure, but there is a message in there also.

Judith Raxten
Judith Raxten

@John Williams Ridiculous! With an attitude like your's, there will soon be no wild species left in the world, which will be a loss to everyone. Fishing off the end of a pier where swimmers are present is stupid, dangerous, and should be banned.  Human beings are also animals, who need to earn to live with all the other animals in the world. Self defense is one thing. Wiping out an entire species is both selfish, and self-defeating. 


Face it. After millions of years, while systematically eliminating thousands of OTHER species, humans have managed to survive. We are in absolutely  NO danger of being made extinct by the animal kingdom. It's the other way around. If we spent more time using our large brains to work out methods of co-existing, instead of trying to kill everything, the world would be a better place, for ALL of the world's animals--including us.   

Ron Proskey
Ron Proskey

@John Williams I agree that human life is always more important than an animals but I disagree on your conclusion. We still have to manage our natural resources and use some common sense. I don't think it's the smartest thing to be swimming by fisherman, especially if they are specifically trying to attract sharks.

John TheBaptist
John TheBaptist

@Quang P Incorrect. This guy was going for sharks, specifically great white sharks. His Facebook page attests to that fact before he deleted his comments stating he was knowingly breaking the law all winter long going for great whites. Bat rays and other large fish were secondary in his quest, great whites were the target, and a swimmer would have no idea what 100lb line looks like versus 20 lb.  See his FB post before he deleted it. He also said that he saw the shark and was trying to "turn it" away from the swimmers. How do you turn a 7ft great white from the pier? That is laughable. You don't. http://www.fishchannel.com/fish-news/2014/07/backstory-great-white-shark-bites-swimmer-off-manhattan-beach-pier.aspx

Edward Daniel
Edward Daniel

@Scout Finch Your comment is very interesting to me.  You make an a priori assumption that naturalism is the only true and proven worldview, as well as the only explanation for human self-awareness, as if there is no debate at all on the subject. Next you move from a scientific statement of what is, to a philosophical statement of what ought to be.  But let's put aside the naturalism vs theism debate for a moment.  Given naturalism, can you explain how the last sentence in your first paragraph is coherent?  Exactly why "should we use our self-awareness and intelligence to do our best to co-exist with all life imaginable"?  What is your point of reference for that statement?  I agree with you, but I think for very different reasons.  After all, "nature is red in tooth and claw".  If survival of the fittest is desirable, then why not use all of our advanced faculties to eliminate any competition for this planet's resources?  I think this is where naturalism breaks down every time.  Without God, there is no objective moral law, just might makes right.  Who are you and I, or anyone else, to declare what ought to be?  Now with theism, we could say that God created human beings (by guiding the evolutionary process) and entrusted the care of the planet to us, like custodians.  Without God, there simply are no moral rules to follow.  The strong survive, the weak perish, and the universe is completely indifferent.  

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