Feb. 6, 2003 GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- A weak economy and excessive fishing may have taken a bite out of shark attacks, which declined in 2002 for the second straight year, a new University of Florida report shows.
The annual total of 60 unprovoked attacks worldwide was less than the 72 reported in 2001 and 85 recorded in 2000, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, which is housed at UF.
Not only did the number drop, fewer of the attacks were serious. The number of fatalities declined to three in 2002, from five in 2001 and 13 in 2000. Two of last year's fatal attacks occurred in Australia and the third took place in Brazil.
"The number of shark attacks has declined for the last two years at all three levels, internationally, nationally and in Florida, the so-called shark capital of the world," he said.
"I think it underscores the views scientists enunciated in 2001 that that year was not particularly unusual and that attacks were not on an upswing," said Burgess, a biological scientist and coordinator of museum operations at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF. Burgess just completed compiling the annual report for the shark attack file, a record of all known shark attacks. Coinciding with Time magazine's label "The Summer of the Shark," the prevailing perception was that 2001 was a banner year for shark attacks, Burgess said. But scientists put more stock in decade-long trends than year-to-year fluctuations, which can result from a variety of oceanographic, meteorological and economic conditions, he said.
One explanation for the recent decline in attacks may be over fishing of sharks, Burgess said.
"Shark populations are at low levels, not only on the East Coast of the United States but worldwide, primarily because of over fishing and to a lesser extent because of habitat alteration," he said. "It appears that fishery management practices have stemmed the tide and these East Coast populations may be beginning to recover, but it will probably take decades."
Economics may be another factor in the decline in attacks, Burgess said. "Clearly, the economy has been down for the last year or so, which may reduce the number of tourists who are able to afford to go to beaches," he said. "That the number of attacks was down in Florida, a popular tourist destination, as well as the U.S. and internationally, may be reflective of a worldwide downturn in the economy."
Other factors that could decrease the incidence of shark attacks include fewer bait fish for sharks in shallow waters where people usually swim, or rainy weather and colder water temperatures during tourist seasons deterring people from entering the ocean, he said.
As in recent years, the bulk of the attacks – 82 percent – were in North American waters, including 47 in the United States and one in the Bahamas. Most of the U.S. attacks – 29 – were recorded in Florida, down from 37 in 2001. Hawaii followed with six. California had four, North Carolina three, South Carolina two, and Oregon and Texas each reported one.
The area of Florida with the highest number of attacks – 18 – occurred on the central East Coast in Volusia County, where an inlet near New Smyrna Beach is a popular surfing site, he said.
Surfers were the most frequent victims with 32 incidents last year, followed by swimmers and waders – 22 – and divers and snorkelers – four.
"Most of the attacks fall into the category of hit-and-run attacks in which the shark makes a quick grab and then releases the victim," he said. "The injuries are relatively minor, often comparable to what one would see in a dog bite."
Burgess, who fields calls from media outlets around the world about shark attacks, said interest in the phenomenon last year dropped off markedly from 2001, when a bull shark in the waters off Pensacola severed the arm of 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast on the weekend after July 4 causing a rash of media coverage that persisted with subsequent attacks. "We had 600 inquiries in the three months of the 'Summer of the Shark,' which was about our total number for the whole of last year," he said.
Fewer attacks wasn't the only reason interest has waned, Burgess believes. "Certainly as a result of the events of 9-11 (Sept. 11, 2001) and the subsequent focus on international issues, the press has had more important matters to be concerned with," he said.
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