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A Galapagos shark.
A Galápagos shark plies the waters of its namesake islands (file picture).

Photograph by David Fritts, Stone/Getty Images

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published February 13, 2012

There wasn't a single shark-attack fatality in the United States in 2011. But attacks elsewhere increased a bit, resulting in 12 deaths worldwide—the most since 1993, according to the University of Florida's 2011 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary, released last week.

According to George Burgess, the report's author, both trends might be summed up in one word: tourism.

(Quiz: How much do you know about beaches?)

The U.S. figures—29 unprovoked attacks in 2011, compared to an average of 39.1 for the past decade—"were the lowest since 1998 and continue a downward trend," said Burgess, a shark expert at the university's Florida Museum of Natural History.

"It seems to me that the declines we've seen in the U.S., and particularly in Florida—which is the engine that fires up U.S. shark-attack statistics—have coincided with the economic downturn.

"We may be seeing that some folks are less able to go to the sea for their vacations," Burgess said.

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With overfishing decimating shark populations worldwide, some destinations have fewer sharks are swimming in their waters.

But that's not the case in Florida, he said. There, populations of the large coastal sharks responsible for most attacks—such as spinner, bull, lemon (picture), tiger, and blacktip sharks—have stabilized in recent years.

In light of that regional shark rebound, "the number of attacks in the United States and Florida suggests there's been a reduced use of these waters," he said.

'No Shame" in Shark Attack

Worldwide, though, expanding tourism could be boosting attack numbers a bit, Burgess said.

Many of the recent attacks have occurred in places where human-shark encounters have been historically rare. Costa Rica, Kenya, and New Caledonia (picture) each saw one fatality, while the French-administered Indian Ocean island of Réunion and the Seychelles saw two apiece.

"I think many of these communities aren't prepared structurally to worry about a shark attack until after it has happened," Burgess said.

"Once the number of bodies going into the water reaches a sort of critical mass and they have a first attack, then they have to react.

"There's no shame in having a shark attack," he added. "It's sort of a signal that you've arrived" as a tourist destination.

Spurring Tourist Centers to Become Shark Smart

The possible link between shark attacks and tourism means that booming coastal communities should put some of their newfound tourist revenue into well-trained lifeguards, emergency-care personnel, and medical facilities, Burgess said.

It's equally important to teach locals and tourists shark dos and don'ts and to remind people that swimming in the ocean is always "a wildlife experience"—something Burgess does as a shark-safety consultant to places such as Réunion, where he'll be working this spring.

(See shark attack tips.)

Burgess performed a similar service in 2010 after a rash of shark attacks at Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2010. There, he found tourist operators actively attracting and feeding sharks.

"That was an area that is blossoming as a destination for Eastern Europeans, and many of them were probably coming to the tropics for the first time in their lives," he said.

"People from Poland, Ukraine, and Russia had possibly never seen a tropical fish before, and the process of feeding sharks—which was taught by locals or other tourists—was accepted as OK, because they simply didn't know better."

Jonathan Tourtellot, founder of the National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations, adds that "there are places in the Caribbean where feeding sharks is a kind of a show. Quite a few marine biologists don't think that's a very good idea at all."

(The Society owns National Geographic News.)

Bad Recipe

Sometimes tourist development unwittingly encroaches into shark territory, said Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group.

That was the case in coastal waters of Recife, Brazil, he said.

After the city had begun experiencing relatively frequent attacks in the 1990s, scientists determined that the waters were birthing grounds for bull sharks.

And even as tourist facilities were replacing mangrove stands, upriver fish-processing plants were discharging debris and blood into the water—catnip to sharks.

"That was a bad recipe for accidents, putting tourists into a disrupted ecosystem that was a breeding and pupping ground," Rand said.

Winners and Losers

Aside from the tourism trends, the bigger issue may be what's happening to the predators themselves, National Geographic's Tourtellot said.

"We may see in general that the rise in adventure tourism means there is going to be a rise in tourist accidents," Tourtellot said. "So it may not be surprising to see the attack stats creep upward a bit if people are increasingly swimming where sharks are in the water."

But, he said, media coverage tends to overemphasize "shark infested waters," he said. "I really am more concerned about the declining numbers of sharks."

Pew's Rand agreed. "Sharks really have more to fear from us then we do of them.

"We know that overall shark numbers are dramatically decreasing, and if things don't change, the threat of sharks really will be less [to humans]. Unfortunately that will also have major negative ramifications for the overall health of the world's oceans."

Despite the billions of hours spent by people in the ocean last year, only 75 unprovoked attacks occurred.

Meanwhie, "we're killing 30 to 70 million sharks a year in fisheries worldwide," Florida's Burgess said. "The real winners and losers are obvious from those numbers."

More: New Shark-Fin Pictures Reveal Ocean "Strip-Mining" >>

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