Florida leads the charge in U.S. shark attacks in 2006
There was more than a little head-scratching going on last week in the wake of the 2006 shark-attack figures.
The International Shark Attack File is compiled by George Burgess at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. He determined that there were 62 unprovoked shark attacks around the world last year, with 23 of them in Florida and two in Manatee County waters.
Two shark attacks? What shark attacks?
A check of The Islander articles for last year noted no attacks. Manatee County marine rescue chief Jay Moyles didn’t recall any attacks, and neither did any of his lifeguards.
Moyles reached Burgess, who explained the shark tale.
It seems that two divers were harassed by several bull sharks April 29, 2006, while about 15 miles off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. There were no "chomps," and although it obviously made for an interesting dive, there were no injuries, and the divers made it back to the boat and then to shore safely.
Perhaps the shark-attack file is a bit overly zealous in its reporting?
By the numbers
"Unprovoked attacks," by the way, are defined as "incidents where an attack on a live human by a shark occurs in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark. Incidents involving sharks and divers in public aquaria or research holding-pens, shark-inflicted scavenge damage to already dead humans (most often drowning victims), attacks on boats, and provoked incidents occurring in or out of the water are not considered unprovoked attacks."
Oh, and "provoked attacks" are "when a human initiates physical contact with a shark, e.g., a diver bit after grabbing a shark, a fisher bit while removing a shark from a net, and attacks on spearfishers and those feeding sharks."
2006 was a relatively average year for unprovoked shark attacks, according to Burgess. The 62 human-shark interactions were up by one from the previous year. Burgess said the 62 attacks worldwide "continues a five-year decline in attacks since reaching 79 in 2000. Despite the recent yearly declines, the number of unprovoked shark attacks has grown at a steady rate over the past century. Overall, the 1990s had the highest number of attacks of any decade, and the first decade of the 21st century likely will continue that upward trend."
However, greater numbers of attacks does not necessarily mean that there are more hungry sharks seeking our arms and legs, but as Burgess surmises, "It most likely is reflective of the ever-increasing amount of time spent in the sea by humans."
And there is a general decline in shark populations, too. "Shark populations actually are declining at a serious rate or are holding at greatly reduced levels in many areas of the world as a result of over-fishing and habitat loss, theoretically reducing the opportunity for these shark-human interactions," he said.
There is also an increase in the data collections and transferal of that information to the shark-attack files.
And the numbers of fatal shark-human interactions have pretty much remained constant at four in the past few years, with none in the United States last year — the deaths occurred in Australia, Brazil, La Reunion and Tonga.
However, the United States saw the greatest number of unprovoked attacks at 38, and Florida led the country with its 23 last year. "The 23 attacks were slightly higher than the 19 reported in 2005, but the average of 18 over the past three years (2004-2006) has been notably lower than the yearly mean of 33 from the first four years of the century."
The east coast of the Sunshine State had the greatest incidence of attacks, with Volusia County on the top of that list at 12, up from nine in 2005. "This area normally has higher numbers of shark-human interactions as a result of very high aquatic recreational utilization of its attractive waters by both Florida residents and tourists, especially surfers," Burgess said.
"Other Florida counties having attacks in 2006 were Brevard (three), Manatee and St. Lucie (two), and Collier, Monroe, Indian River, and Palm Beach (one each)."
Surprisingly, surfers and wind surfers had the highest rate of attack, at 42 percent, while divers and snorkelers represented 8 percent of the attacks.
So. You’re in the water. A shark is in the water. What to do?
"If one is actually under attack by a shark, we advise a proactive response," Burgess said with a touch of wryness in his tone. "Hitting a shark on the nose, ideally with an inanimate object, usually results in the shark temporarily curtailing its attack. One should try to get out of the water at this time. If this is not possible, repeat bangs to the snout may offer temporary restraint, but the result will likely become increasingly less effective. If a shark actually bites, we suggest clawing at its eyes and gills, two sensitive areas. One should not act passively if under attack — sharks respect size and power."
Duh? Go figure!
So what is this shark-attack file?
"The International Shark Attack File, internationally recognized as the definitive source of scientifically accurate information on shark attack, is a compilation of all known shark attacks," according to Burgess. "In existence since 1958, it is administered by the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida under the auspices of the American Elasmobranch Society, the world's foremost international organization of scientists studying sharks, skates and rays. More than 4,000 individual investigations are currently housed in the ISAF, covering the period from the mid-1500s to present.
"Many of the data in the ISAF originate from the voluntary submissions of numerous cooperating scientists who serve worldwide as regional observers. Data submitted to the ISAF is screened, coded and computerized. Hard-copy documentation, including original interviews and notes, press clippings, photographs, audio/video tapes, and medical/autopsy reports, is permanently archived. Biological researchers and research physicians study investigations housed in the ISAF.
"Access to ISAF data is granted only after careful screening on a case-by-case basis. Direct access by the press and general public is prohibited since much data, including medical records, is sensitive in nature and is given in confidence."
"This was a nice dull year and we love dull years because it means there are fewer serious attacks and fewer victims," Burgess said. "It’s really quite remarkable when you have only four people a year die in the mouth of a shark and puts in perspective how small shark attack is as a phenomenon."
And now, for the gory details of the four fatalities.
"The Australian victim was a woman swimming with her dog, and the attack may have been provoked by fishermen throwing bloodied fish in the ocean as they cleaned their catch," Burgess said. "The Brazilian fatality was a male surfer in waters off the northeastern part of the country. The Tonga case involved a 24-year-old female swimmer who was an American Peace Corps volunteer. The attack off the Indian Ocean island of Reunion was on a 34-year-old male surfing in an area where swimming and other recreational activities are forbidden."
Coming back to our part of the world, "besides Florida’s 23 attacks, elsewhere in the United States attacks numbered four in water offshore of South Carolina; three each in Hawaii and Oregon; two in California; and one each in New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas.
"Within Florida, Volusia County and particularly New Smyrna Beach is the hot spot," Burgess said. "This area on a square-mile basis has more attacks than anyplace else in the world."
He said a nearby inlet draws many swimmers, surfers and sharks, "which find all the splashing, kicking and other movements humans make in the water highly provocative."
Burgess did end his report on a somewhat upbeat note.
"Even though there are a large number of attacks in Volusia County and along the entire east coast of Florida, the injuries are seldom very serious and fatalities are highly unusual."
See you in the water. Ha.