June 10, 1998 Writer: Cathy Keen, email@example.com
Source: George Burgess, (352) 392-1721
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- An upswing in human shark attacks in 1997 probably signals a return to normal after a welcome slump from the previous year's all-time high, a new University of Florida study finds.
"Historically, shark attacks have been going up almost every year, but there are ups and downs from year to year depending on the availability of sharks and the amount of time that people spend in the water in a given area," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, which is housed at UF. "Why are there lots more attacks one year than another? It's not easy to say why."
Between 1996 and 1997, the number of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide soared from 36 to 56, still considerably less than the all-time high of 72 set in 1995. In Florida, the global leader in human-shark skirmishes, the number of attacks nearly doubled from 13 in 1996 to 25 in 1997, Burgess said.
More than half of all attacks (34) took place in North American waters, and the United States had far more attacks (32) than any other country, Burgess said. Australia was a distant second with five, followed by Brazil (4), the Bahamas (3), South Africa (3), Japan (2) and New Guinea (2). Single attacks were reported from Mexico, Fiji, Djibouti in northeast Africa, Reunion island in the Indian Ocean, and Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
"The bottom line is that the United States probably has more people in the water per hour than any other place because it has a huge coastline and people have the leisure time to go to the coast," Burgess said. "Florida follows that same formula. Everybody in the state is an hour away from the beach, and there is a large native population that is aquatically active, not to mention vast numbers of tourists who visit the water at least sometime during their stay."
Volusia County had the dubious distinction of having the most shark attacks (14), followed by Flagler (3); Broward, Palm Beach, St. Lucie (2 each); and Martin (1). One Florida attack lacked sufficient information to tie it to a specific county, he said.
The attacks in Volusia County occur primarily in Ponce Inlet, a popular surfing spot on Florida's east coast that draws people from the Orlando metropolitan area, Burgess said. "I would bet there are probably more people on Volusia County beaches than any other county in the state," he said.
Surfers continue to be the most often targeted recreational group, with nearly half (45 percent) of all 1997 attacks involving surfers, wind surfers and rafters, Burgess said. The second-largest group of victims were swimmers and waders, (27 percent), followed by divers, including snorkelers, free divers and scuba users, (26 percent). Least commonly attacked were kayakers and surf skiers (2 percent).
The fatality rate was slightly higher in 1997 (20 percent) than the ‘90s average of 14 percent. Last year's 11 fatalities took place in Japan, New Guinea, South Africa, Brazil, Djibouti, Mexico, Reunion and Vanuatu.
Fatalities are much lower in the United States, where smaller species of sharks cause relatively minor injuries and better emergency medical care is available, he said.
"A trend in recent years has been for more and more attacks to occur in what was formerly thought to be far flung places, such as Reunion Island, Vanuatu and Djibouti, all of which are tropical places with sharks," Burgess said. "But aquatic recreation is intruding itself into virtually every corner of the earth these days."
Unlike most natives in these tropical areas, who have learned not to enter the water in certain places, many tourists either don't know of the dangers or choose to ignore them, he said.
"We need to remember that we are invaders of a natural system that has large animals living in it that occasionally can cause us harm," he said. "Sharks share the waters with humans, or more rightfully put, humans share the water with sharks. It's a wilderness experience every time we enter the sea."
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