Mar. 31, 2000 Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: George Burgess, (352) 392-1721, firstname.lastname@example.org
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Sharks killed fewer people in 1999 than in any year of the ‘90s, a new University of Florida study shows. Only four human deaths were reported from skirmishes with the marine predators worldwide last year, compared with an annual average of seven during the decade, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, which is housed at UF.
"It's no coincidence that the fatality rate has been declining decade after decade," Burgess said. "A big reason is dramatic improvements in the quality and availability of emergency medical care throughout the world, which have boosted survival rates.
"We also are seeing an increased awareness of how to avoid putting ourselves in situations where we could get killed by sharks," he said. "More enlightened media coverage and heavy use of the file's Internet site have resulted in better informed marine recreationists."
Because numbers can randomly fluctuate from year to year, statistics over an entire decade give a better picture of shark attack trends, said Burgess, a researcher at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History. Overall, the 1990s had the highest number of attacks (536) of any previous decade, continuing the upward trend of the 20th century, he said.
"The number of shark attacks in a given year is directly correlated to the amount of human hours spent in the sea," he said. "As world population continues to grow and time spent in aquatic recreation rises, we can expect a gradual increase in attacks."
Otherwise, the numbers of shark attacks in 1999 remained fairly typical, Burgess said.
"Last year was an absolutely average year," he said. "The number of attacks was 58, right at the average of what we've had for the last few years and for the decade."
There were 54 shark attacks in 1998 and 60 in 1997, and the annual average for the decade was 54, Burgess said.
Two-thirds of last year's assaults occurred in North American waters, which are naturally have a high number high because Florida has so many attacks, but they were even more frequent in 1999, he said.
Between 1998 and 1999, the number of shark attacks in Florida increased from 22 to 25, and those in North America rose from 29 to 39.
"Basically, the way these international statistics work is, ‘as Florida goes, so goes the world' because Florida annually is the leader in numbers of attacks," he said. "More attacks occur in Florida than in any state, country or other geographical entity because so many people swim with sharks."
Thirty-seven of the 39 attacks in North American waters last year took place in the United States, with single incidents recorded in both Mexico and the Bahamas. Elsewhere, South Africa had nine attacks, followed by Brazil (4), New Zealand (3), Australia (2) and Saudi Arabia (1). South Africa had two fatalities; Australia and Saudi Arabia each had one.
As usual, most U.S. attacks occurred in Florida (25). Five attacks were reported in Hawaii; two each in California, Georgia and South Carolina; and one in Virginia.
In Florida, Volusia County experienced the most shark attacks (9), largely because of surfers' attraction to the waves at Ponce de Leon Inlet near New Smyrna Beach, he said.
Sharks tend to be common in inlet areas because tidal flushing -- in this case of a lagoon system -- draws a lot of bait fish, he said.
"Under conditions of breaking surf, reduced visibility and tidal currents, sharks apparently mistake the splashing of people's feet and hands at the water's surface for fish, probably because they have to make fast approaches to what they think are prey items in order to make a living," Burgess said.
Other Florida counties with shark attacks last year were Brevard (4), Palm Beach (4), Martin (2), Duval (1), Escambia (1), Franklin (1), Monroe (1), St. Johns (1) and St. Lucie (1).
Surfers who persist in going where the sharks are continue to be the no. 1 victims, representing 43 percent of all 1999 attacks, he said. Other victims were swimmers (38 percent), divers (11 percent), body surfers (2 percent), kayakers (2 percent), those involved in air or sea disasters (2 percent) and those who simply jumped into the water (2 percent).
More information on the shark attack file is available online at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/ISAF/ISAF.htm. A bar graph showing worldwide shark attacks during the 1990s is available by calling News and Public Affairs at (352) 392-0186 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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