Relax. Shark bites worldwide in 2017 were 'average,' scientists say

Ed Killer
Treasure Coast

STUART, Fla. — No need to panic, beach lovers. According to the scientists who oversee the International Shark Attack File, 2017 was an average year for unprovoked shark bites worldwide.

Just don't tell that to those sporting a fresh scar.

Diver Cameron Nimmo of Jupiter, Fla., co-owner of Shark Addicts, a company that takes divers on guided shark dive encounters, swims with a shark offshore of Jupiter Inlet.

The ISAF, part of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, evaluated 155 incidents of activity between humans and sharks during the 2017 calendar year. Of those, they determined 88 incidents were unprovoked, meaning the human was not engaged in an activity designed to attract, feed or bait a shark, ISAF manager Lindsay French said.

Of the remaining 67 interactions investigated, as many as 30 occurred when someone was on a shark dive, spearfishing or fishing commercially or recreationally. Boat attacks accounted for 18 incidents and 12 were listed as "doubtful."

French said the findings are good for humans and sharks considering there are more people spending more time closer to coastlines and in the water, sharks' natural habitat.

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"The numbers may be kind of boring although worldwide the total is slightly higher than average," French said. "We expect the number to go up a little bit every year since more humans are in the water and there is an increased interest in aquatic recreation. For the USA and Florida, we were at our average, and as is typical, Florida topped the charts."

Tourism officials must be thrilled.

Florida accounted for 31 shark bites, 58% of the nation's total encounters, or as many as the combined total of Australia (14), Reunion Island (3), Ascension Island (2), the Bahamas (2), Costa Rica (2), Indonesia (2), Republic of South Africa (2), Brazil (1), Canary Islands (1) and Cuba (1). What was unusual were the 10 shark attack reports from South Carolina, which French said could be explained by an increased communication effort between the ISAF and ocean rescue services along the South Carolina coast.

Five attacks worldwide resulted in fatalities with two at Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and one each in Australia, Costa Rica and Cuba. There were no fatal shark attacks in the U.S.

Volusia County led Florida, as it usually does, with nine shark bites, followed closely by Brevard County with seven. French said ISAF examines trends in an effort to help prevent more of these incidents from happening.

"Surfers are the No. 1 group of beach recreationalists which are bit because they spend the majority of their time in the surf zone — a common area where sharks are looking for food," French said. "They are unintentionally attracting sharks by causing a commotion which is often perceived by the sharks as a wounded fish. They are curious creatures and splashing near the surface gives off the same sound as their food would make."

Although the ISAF cannot often differentiate species of sharks involved in an attack, mainly because the shark in question is often not seen by the bite victim, French said many of the Florida bites likely involve blacktip sharks in "hit and run" type bites.

J.D. Saxon of Vero Beach, Fla., catches some air off a wave at Wabasso Beach on Sept. 25, 2017, as large swells hit the beach helped along by Hurricane Maria churning in the Atlantic Ocean. Experts say water sports often unintentionally attract sharks because of splashing, paddling, kicking and wiping out.

"They are the most frequent shark feeding in those areas and the bites they leave behind are smaller," she said. "Each year we see a handful of bites from white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks, and they are more severe bites. They are larger, have more aggressive behavior and their bite patterns are very distinct."

French said blacktip sharks, spinner sharks and other coastal sharks have similar bites so species are harder to confirm.

“We need to remember we’re going into a shark’s natural habitat when we enter the water,” French said. “Water sport activities often unintentionally attract sharks because of splashing, paddling, kicking and wiping out. But the number of unprovoked attacks is remarkably low considering the billions of people who participate in water sports each year.”

French said the world’s shark populations continue to suffer as a result of overfishing and habitat loss.

Former Florida Program for Shark Research Director George Burgess diplays various shark jaws in his lab at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus in Gainesville in this April 23, 2015, photograph.

“On average, unprovoked shark attacks cause six fatalities worldwide each year,” she said. “But fisheries kill about 100 million sharks and rays annually, so there’s definitely a real need to conserve these animals and their habitat to ensure their long-term survival. They play an important role in marine ecosystems.”

George Burgess, long the voice of the ISAF until he retired in November, said the role of the shark in our social consciousness has changed over the years since he began working at the University of Florida's Ichthyology Division in 1975. He headed up the ISAF when the university acquired it in 1988 and devoted the majority of his time to it.

"We saw the shark go from a critter which was largely ignored to a super villain with the advent of Jaws," Burgess said Tuesday. "For a period of 10 to 15 years, the public's view was heavily skewed by the movies which came out.

"At the same time, the research community was beginning the process of trying to put everything into perspective, and finally we are seeing the view of sharks moving in the other direction, to where some people believe sharks to be the cuddly fuzzy bunnies of the sea," he said. "As scientists, we are trying to make sure everyone knows the truth lies somewhere in between."

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