Shark attacks up in the U.S. in 2012

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Great white shark. Photo courtesy NOAA and the Wikimedia Commons.

Experts say science-based avoidance is the best way to reduce incidents

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — There were 53 reported shark attacks in the U.S. last year, a record-high number for the past 10 years, with most of the incidents in Florida and Hawaii, according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File report released this week.

Florida reported 26 attacks, followed by Hawaii (10), California (5), South Carolina (5), North Carolina (2) and one each in Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Puerto Rico. One fatality occurred in California, and Hawaii had the highest number of attacks since 2007. Most incidents in Florida occurred in Brevard (8) and Volusia (7) counties because these central east coast beaches are high aquatic recreation areas.

There were seven fatalities worldwide, which is lower than 2011 but higher than the yearly average of 4.4 from 2001 to 2010. It is the second consecutive year for multiple shark attacks in Western Australia (5) and Reunion Island (3) in the southwest Indian Ocean, suggesting an emergence of localized shark attack issues in those areas, according to George Burgess, director of the file housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus.

“Those two areas are sort of hot spots in the world … What I’ve seen in all situations when there’s been a sudden upswing in an area is that human-causative factors are involved, such as changes in our behavior, changes in our abundance, or an overt shark-attracting product of something that we’re doing,” Burgess said.

The Australian government responded to the attacks by sanctioning the killing of endangered great white sharks, a tactic that probably won’t help solve the problem, Burgess said.

“The concept of ‘let’s go out and kill them’ is an archaic approach to a shark attack problem, and its opportunities for success are generally slim-to-none,” Burgess said. “It’s mostly a feel-good revenge – like an ‘eye for an eye’ approach – when in fact you’re not likely to catch the shark that was involved in the situation. The shark that was involved in the situation also isn’t necessarily likely to do it again.”

Pointing out that humans kill millions of sharks each year, Burgess said the risk of shark attacks could be reduced with a precautionary tactics.

“We could reduce risks by avoiding areas and times when sharks are most common, and where danger is at its highest,” he said. “A perfect example of that is in Western Australia, where people have been getting hit in areas of known white shark abundance at times of year when white shark numbers are at their highest – the responsibility is upon us, as humans, to avoid such situations or else pay the consequence.”

North American waters continued to be the epicenter for worldwide shark attacks, in part due to the high level of human activity in coastal waters. The 53 U.S. incidents include Hawaii and Puerto Rico, which are not recorded as occurring in North American waters in the International Shark Attack File database.

“The numbers from an international standpoint were on target for the last couple of years because, in theory, each year we should have more attacks than the previous year owing to the rise of human population from year to year,” Burgess said. “Thus the shark attack rate is not increasing even though the number of shark attacks is rising. Shark attack as a phenomenon is extremely uncommon, considering the millions of hours humans spend in the water each year.”

The 2012 U.S. fatality rate of 2 percent is far lower than the 22 percent for the rest of the world, likely due to superior safety and medical capabilities in the U.S., Burgess said.

About 60 percent of the attacks involved surfers, largely due to the provocative nature of the activity. Swimmers were involved in 22 percent of attacks, followed by divers (8 percent).

Burgess said 30 million to 70 million sharks are killed every year in fisheries, and people need to recognize humans pose a greater threat to elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays) than sharks do to humans. Worldwide over-fishing, especially to meet demands for flesh and fins used in shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy, continues to contribute to the decline in shark populations, Burgess said.

In the case of a shark attack, researchers advise taking a proactive response, such as hitting the shark’s nose, since they respect size and power.

“Shark attacks are rare and it doesn’t matter whether you call them attacks or bites or bumps – your chances of having any of them are slim,” Burgess said.

For additional safety tips and to view the 2012 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary, please visit www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/isaf/isaf.htm.

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