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Date of Issue: March 04, 2009


Shark attacks down, right whale numbers up - so far

Shark-human interactions, at least the type that net humans into sharks rather than sharks into human nets, reached the lowest numbers in five years in 2008.

Total shark attacks worldwide were 59 last year. A high time by sharks was 2007, when there were 71 attacks.

You can blame the lower number on the economy, according to the leading expert in shark-attack statistical compilation.

George Burgess, ichthyologist and director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida in Gainesville, thinks that the downward spiral of attacks is directly linked to the downward spiral of disposable income dedicated to vacations.

Less people going to the beach means less people in the water for a shark munch, in other words.

 “I can’t help but think that contributing to that reduction may have been the reticence of some people to take holidays and go to the beach for economic reasons,” Burgess said in a UF statement.

 “We noticed similar declines during the recession that followed the events of 2001, despite the fact that human populations continued to rise.”

 Of the 59 attacks in 2008, four were fatal. That figure is about average. Ironically, 2007’s high attack statistic resulted in only one fatality, a 20-year death toll low.

 Two of the deaths were in Mexico, one was in Australia and one was in the United States. All were in Pacific Ocean waters.

 Burgess postulates that the weather condition called La Niña, a climate alteration that brings water masses and deep ocean creatures closer to shore, “probably was a factor in the deaths of two male surfers and injury of a third that occurred in less than a month along a resort-studded stretch of Mexico’s southern Pacific coast. The U.S. fatality was a 66-year-old man swimming at Solana Beach, Calif., while the Australian death of a 16-year-old boy occurred along the country’s eastern coast.

 The United States attack stats usually total two-thirds of worldwide attacks. In 2008, the U.S. had 41 shark hits on humans. Florida had the dubious honor of counting 32 of them.

 “Florida, with its warm waters, has more sharks, including black tip sharks and spinner sharks, species not found in lower temperatures,” Burgess said.

 “Volusia County continued its dubious distinction as the world’s shark-bite capital with 22 incidents, its highest yearly total since 2001,” he said. Attractive waves off New Smyrna Beach on the central Atlantic coast are popular with surfers, he said. “As in past years, surfers accounted for most of the world’s attacks — 57 percent — followed by swimmers and waders, 36 percent; and divers, 8 percent.

 “Surfers are the heavy favorites largely because the splashing of arms and particularly the kicking of feet at the water’s surface where visibility is poor is provocative to sharks,” Burgess said. “They result in what we think are cases of mistaken identity, where the shark interprets the irregular splashing to be activities of its normal prey.”

 And economic woes apparently don’t bother surfers, dude.

 Wave riders “are not a group that is economically blessed, but all they have to do is drive to the beach with the board and get into the water, and the rest is free,” Burgess said.

 Despite long-term declines in shark populations — some species number only about 10 percent of historic levels, due mostly to overfishing — Burgess expects shark attacks to rise “because of a gradual upswing from one decade to the next. We’ve already surpassed the numbers of attacks in the previous 10-year period, so we know this decade will be higher than the last.”

… and hope of some higher numbers

Right whale watchers on Florida’s east coast are counting more calving pods than in years past, offering the glimmer of hope that a seriously declined population may be swimming its way, slowly, away from the downward spiral of extinction.

At least 32 new right whale calves, more than ever recorded, have been observed this season off the coasts of Georgia and Florida, where the whales migrate to give birth between late November and March,” according to CNN.     There are only about 400 right whales in existence. It is the most endangered of all the large whales.

Right whales grow to 70 tons. They have jet-black backs and no dorsal fin, which gives them a torpedo-like appearance. They summer in the cold Arctic waters off Canada and Greenland, moving south for the winter and near the Atlantic Seaboard in the fall to calve off Georgia and Florida

Unfortunately for the whales, their sleek look makes them hard to spot by ships, and several are struck and killed annually.

Steps to slow the ship-whale strikes have been enacted that slows ships to 10 knots as they move through calving waters. Shoreside whale watchers, as well as aircraft, patrol the waters and alert ships in the presence of right whales. It seems to be working: no whale strikes have occurred so far this calving season.

Another threat lies to the north in the form of lobster pots and fishing line. The whales can become entangled in the line, which can restrict their swimming skills and cut deep into their thick blubber. Fishers have made gear changes, but results are slow in coming.

This year, five entangled right whales have been spotted, more than ever before in a season.

Humans are intervening to correct the human damage caused to right whales by lines. Teams, including members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, try to disentangle whales before their wounds become fatal. Scientists zip out in small inflatable boats to the entangled whale and try to hook the line with grappling hooks. Once hooked, the teams throw knives at the rope in an attempt to cut the whales free.

The right whale blubber is thick, so the harm caused by an imbedded knife is akin to the discomfort humans receive from a bug bite. But despite the stone-age technique in our high-tech world, one whale has been freed this season.

Sandscript factoid

Right whales gained their name due to their unfortunate proclivity to float on the surface after being harpooned by whalers. They were the “right whale” to kill because they were easy to find after death and more profitable for harvesting of blubber and oil.

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