UF study: World shark attacks dipped in 2005, part of long-term trend

Assertive and even aggressive human behavior could explain why shark attacks worldwide dipped last year, continuing a five-year downward trend in close encounters with the oceanic predators, new University of Florida research suggests.

Greater safety precautions and in-your-face responses to confrontations with sharks went a long way in reducing the total number of attacks from 65 in 2004 to 58 in 2005 and fatalities from seven to four, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File housed at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History.

In contrast, there were 78 shark attacks -- 11 of them fatal -- in 2000, the all-time high record year for attacks since statistics were kept, he said.

There also were simply fewer sharks to attack people, a result of a decline in populations caused by overfishing of the carnivorous creature, which generally is slow to reproduce, Burgess said.

"It appears that humans are doing a better job of avoiding being bitten, and on the rare occasion where they actually meet up with a shark, are doing the right thing to save their lives," he said.

In one such case, a surfer bitten by a great white shark off the Oregon coast on Dec. 24 had the presence of mind to drive it away with a well-timed punch to the nose, he said.

"That gentleman did precisely what he should do under those circumstances," Burgess said. "A person who is under attack should act aggressively toward the shark and not follow the advice given to women who are having their purses snatched in New York City, which is to lie on the ground, play dead and give up the purse."

Despite the worldwide decline, the number of attacks in the United States rose slightly, from 30 in 2004 to 38 in 2005. But that is still considerably lower than the recorded high of 52 in 2000, he said.

The same pattern emerged in Florida, the U.S. shark attack capital, where the number of attacks increased from 12 to 18 but was still well below the 2000 record of 37, he said.

The 2004 numbers were the lowest in more than a decade, however, and were probably due to Florida's unusually active hurricane season, which kept people out of the water, he said.

In addition to last year's 38 U.S. attacks, Burgess tracked 10 in Australia, four in South Africa and one each in the Bahamas, St. Martin, Mexico, Fiji, Vanuatu and South Korea.

Compared with previous years, the number of attacks in Australia was relatively high last year and in 2004, when there were 12, prompting some people to call for the installation of nets to barricade sharks from beaches, Burgess said. But the per capita rate of shark attacks has not risen over the past century, with apparent increases coinciding with a rise in population and Australia's growing attraction to tourists in recent decades, he said.

The number of shark attacks at any particular time depends on a variety of factors, including oceanographic and meteorological conditions, abundance of prey items, and very important, the amount of time people spend in the water, he said.

"We need to remember there have been huge changes in how humans use the water over the last 20 to 30 years," Burgess said. "When our parents and grandparents went into the water, they maybe wiggled their toes, or if they were very daring, jumped in and swam. People of our generation are surfing, diving, sail boarding, scuba diving, skin diving and engaging in all kinds of activities."

Of this year's four fatalities, two were in Australia, one in the Indo-Pacific island of Vanuatu and one in the United States.

The U.S. attack occurred June 25 along Florida's Gulf Coast, when 14-year-old Jamie Daigle was attacked by a bull shark while swimming off Sandestin. It was the state's first death from a shark attack in four years. Two days later, also in the Florida Panhandle, 16-year-old Craig Hutto lost his right leg to a shark while fishing in waist-deep water off Cape San Blas.

Five of the state's 18 shark attacks last year occurred along Florida's Gulf Coast, which is a greater proportion to the Atlantic coast than previous years, Burgess said. "It's unusual to have only 13 attacks on the state's eastern coast," he said.

Elsewhere in the United States, five attacks occurred in South Carolina, four each in Texas and Hawaii, three in California, two in North Carolina and one each in New Jersey and Oregon.

Surfers were the most frequent victims, accounting for 29 incidents, followed by swimmers and waders, 20, and divers, four.

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