News Stories

Shark Attacks: Our Fault?

Amanda Onion writes in abcnews.com that swimmers have little reason to worry about being bitten by a shark. George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida, says recent data that suggests people are 15 times more likely to be killed by falling coconuts than by a shark.

"Shark attacks are more a result of human patterns rather than shark patterns," says Burgess. "Human populations influence shark attacks more than sharks do." Burgess says incidences of shark attacks last summer and in recent years have exactly mirrored the number of people, particularly surfers, who were in the water. His data shows that more attacks occur between the hours of 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. even though sharks are more likely to frequent shallow waters from dusk to dawn when their main prey ? small fish ? are more abundant. Other data reveal that shark attacks in general dropped between the hours of 12 and 2 p.m.

"Does this mean that sharks suddenly stop feeding between 12 and 2? No ? it's really a result of human feeding behavior. This is when people return to their condos to get lunch," Burgess says.

Last year's shark attacks began when an 8-year-boy was attacked by a shark on July 4 while swimming in shallow surf in the ocean near Pensacola, Florida. The boy survived and his severed arm was reattached in surgery. There were 91 incidents of shark encounters last summer, including 76 unprovoked attacks on people by sharks. That number actually dropped from the previous year when there were 85 unprovoked attacks by sharks on people.

Most of the attacks (55) occurred in the United States, particularly in the populous regions of Florida, California and Hawaii. Although sharks killed five people last year (three in the United States), most of the incidents were minor bites. And most of the victims were surfers. Burgess argues that surfers tend to ignore shark warnings in favor of catching big waves. Their numbers have also increased over the years. "The number of attacks on surfers has gone up dramatically since the 1960s," Burgess says. "We can thank the Beach Boys for this."

Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, admits that shark attacks have risen in recent years as the number of people going to the beach has increased. Data has shown that beach attendance in the United States has increased by about 10 percent over the last 10 years and the number of shark-human incidences has increased by nearly the same rate. "Like summer thunderstorms, there will be more shark incidents this summer," says Hueter.

Burgess says, "Most of us have probably swum within 15 feet of a shark and didn't know it. Most of the time, sharks don't want to have anything to do with us."

To avoid encounters with sharks this summer, Burgess says we should remember to: Avoid splashing, don't go into the water while bleeding, don't wear shiny jewelry while swimming, swim with other people, avoid murky waters where sharks seek out smaller fish for prey, and don't swim at dusk, when sharks are more likely to be feeding.

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