Shark Attacks, Resulting Human Deaths on the Rise

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Shark attacks worldwide edged up a notch from 60 in 2008 to 61 in 2009, according to a new report from the University of Florida that also documented 5 human deaths last year due to these attacks instead of 4 from 2008.

(University of Florida shark expert George Burgess sits amid his collection of shark jaws, including the large jaw of a tiger shark in the foreground. Burgess maintains the International Shark File and issues an annual

report on shark attacks worldwide. Photo by Kris Nichols- UF News Bureau.)

Although the report did not take into account 2010 data, Discovery is still reeling from the loss of kite surfer Stephen Schafer, who died last month when he was attacked by sharks off the Florida coast. He worked at Discovery for many years and was known and admired by several of my colleagues. 

George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at UF, points out that fewer shark attacks happened last year in the U.S., however.

“The big story is that the number of attacks in the United States dropped dramatically from 41 in 2008 to 28 in 2009,” he said. “Considering there were 50 attacks in 2007, we may have a bit of a trend, but only time will tell.”

Florida surprisingly led the way in the decline in attacks, since they fell from 32 in both 2007 and 2008 to 19 in 2009.

 

A simple explanation is that the rate of attacks is dictated by the number of sharks and people in the same waters. Since these ratios vary, so too do the attack stats. One odd perk of the recession is that it appears to have reduced the number of beach-going bathers.

“Florida’s population hasn’t gone down, so I suppose the economy could have had an effect on how many times people can afford to put gas in their cars and go to the beach," Burgess explained.

All of the shark-caused deaths last year happened in waters off of South Africa, save for a single death linked to New Caledonia. Sharks love the cool waters of South Africa, helping to explain why that is often such a dangerous spot for water recreation. One victim was body surfing, another was paddle boarding and three others were surfing.

Here's a summary of the newly compiled list of attacks:

United States: 28

Australia: 20

South Africa: 6

Egypt: 2

Ecuador: 1

Indonesia: 1

Mozambique: 1

New Caledonia: 1

Vietnam: 1

“As scientists we don’t get so excited about individual years and tend to look at things in terms of decades,” Burgess said. “The first decade of the 21st century continues a 100-year trend of each decade having more attacks than the previous one, the result of increases in human population and the amount of time spent in recreational activity.”

 

Conversely, fatality rates have sharply declined overall. “These first 10 years of the new century have the all-time lowest fatality rate for any decade,” Burgess said.

 

At the beginning of the 20th century, 60 percent of all shark attacks were fatal, compared with only 7 percent between 2000 and 2010, he said.

 

“The number of people who died relative to the number of attacks was so high at the beginning of the 20th century in large part because of poor at-the-scene care, no lifeguards and obviously a much more rudimentary ability of medical science to save severe trauma victims,” he said.

Analysis of the victims over the past decade reveals they were mostly swimmers and surfers, but others were scuba diving, paddle boarding, body surfing, boogie boarding, kite surfing, snorkeling, spear fishing, wading, floating or just entering the water.

Volusia County in Florida retains its dubious distinction as being "the world's shark bite capital." That's due, in part, to waves off New Smyrna Beach on the central Atlantic coast that can attract both surfers and sharks. 

“As always, Volusia County was the bell winner,” Burgess said. “Year in and year out there have been more attacks there than anywhere else in Florida. This turned out to be a low year for Volusia County and I’m sure the chamber of commerce was very happy about that.”

To watch a video on the new report, please go to this University of Florida page.