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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
Shark attacks: On the increase?
A shark
Reports suggest attacks are rising
By BBC News Online's Kate McGeown

In the last few days, three people have been attacked by sharks off America's east coast, two of them fatally.

On Monday, a Russian man was killed and his wife critically injured as they walked through shallow water off a beach in North Carolina. Just two days before, 10-year-old David Peltier was killed further up the coast, in Virginia.

These recent incidents will further exacerbate concerns among the US public that shark attacks are increasing.

Earlier this summer, a series of high-profile cases led to renewed interest in the issue.


It's a media frenzy not a feeding frenzy

George Burgess, University of Florida
The media has lost no time in speculating on the reasons behind the behaviour of the ocean's most feared predators.

A recent US edition of Time magazine even devoted its front page to the "Summer of the Shark".

But George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack Files at the University of Florida, said the number of attacks this year was actually nothing unusual - if anything, the overall annual figure is likely to be lower than last year.

Instead, he said that a couple of highly publicised cases earlier this year had fuelled interest in shark attacks, and since then almost every incident, however minor, had been reported.

The shark which attacked Jessie Arbogast
Jessie Arbogast's arm was severed by a shark in July
On 6 July, eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast had his arm bitten off by a bull shark in knee-deep water in the Gulf of Mexico. He remains in a coma. And earlier this month, two New York bankers were attacked in the Bahamas, with one, Krishna Thompson, losing his leg.

But the other recent incidents have been fairly minor, and while Mr Burgess was quick to extend his sympathy to the victims, he said that according to the statistics, this year was nothing special. "It's a media frenzy not a feeding frenzy," he said.

On the increase

While 2001 may not break any records, in the long term there is no doubt that the number of shark-related incidents is on the increase.

The ISAF listed 79 confirmed cases in 2000, compared to 58 in 1999 and only 37 a decade ago in 1990.

A number of theories have been given to explain the increase - ranging from environmental factors such as global warming to the increased popularity of aquatic sports. These factors vary from region to region, and also on the species of shark.

But the most controversial theory is that sharks are being lured into shallow water by specific feeding events set up for tourists.


The annual risk of death from lightning is 30 times greater than that from a shark attack

George Burgess
Mr Burgess admitted that this may be an issue in some areas of the world. In the Bahamas, for example, there are several organisations which give food to sharks to lure them into sight for tourists.

There are also a couple of small-scale operations in Florida, although recent proposals may lead to them being banned.

But the most obvious reason for the increased attacks, according to Mr Burgess, is the gain in visitors to the beaches of America's east coast, drawn by the popular sports of diving and surfing. Last year, a record 90 million people flocked to the Florida's resorts.

"There is no doubt that being attacked by a shark is an odds game," said Mr Burgess. "When there are more people, there are more attacks."

Surfers targeted

Surfers are particularly at risk - all six victims over the weekend were surfers, and Mr Burgess said that surfing is a "provocative activity" to sharks.

In part, this is because surfers spend most of their time in the "splash zone", which is also the area where sharks congregate to look for prey.

Surfer
All six victims this weekend were surfers
Surfers also create splash themselves, further exacerbating the problem. When there is a lot of white water and splash, visibility is reduced, and many sharks mistake surfers for prey.

There is also speculation that sharks occasionally mistake divers in wetsuits for seals or sealions, and in some areas of the world, such as Australia or Hawaii, people paddling on their surfboards may be confused for turtles.

Whether this is actually the case or not, the clear indication is that a shark attack of this sort is a case of mistaken identity rather than a deliberate attempt to harm humans.

In almost all attacks, the shark quickly realises its mistake and releases its grip, Mr Burgess said, allowing the victim to get away. Cases when a shark specifically targets a human are very rare, and only happen about once a year.

Unfair press

Mr Burgess said there is a big misconception about shark attacks.

Reducing the risk
Always stay in groups
Do not wander too far from the shore
Do not wear shiny jewellery
Do not enter the water if bleeding
Avoid waters where there are signs of bait fishing
Refrain from excess splashing
Signs of porpoises do not indicate an absence of sharks
Use extra caution when waters are murky
Evacuate the water if sharks are there
Source: ISAF
The vast majority are not life-threatening, with only an average of eight deaths a year worldwide. "That is very low compared to the hundreds of millions of person hours in the sea," he said.

Sharks often get bad press. They can't be as easily controlled by man as land-based animals such as large cats and bear. Shoot a land-based predator and the danger goes away, but disposing of your would-be enemy is not so easy in the sea.

Mr Burgess put the actual danger in perspective. "Bees, wasps and snakes are responsible for far more fatalities a year," he said. "And the annual risk of death from lightning is 30 times greater than that from a shark attack."

Add to that the millions of sharks that are killed every year for their fins, meat and skin - so much so that some species are now close to extinction - and sharks do not seem quite the villains that some would make them out to be.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Enda Twomey reports
"The sharks were so plentiful, surfers had to jump over them to catch waves"
See also:

06 Sep 01 | Americas
Shark attack factfile
04 Sep 01 | Americas
US mounts aerial shark patrols
20 Aug 01 | Americas
Spate of shark attacks off Florida
12 Aug 01 | Americas
Shark attack boy leaves hospital
09 Feb 01 | Americas
Shark attacks at record high
20 Nov 00 | Americas
Pensioner fights off shark
07 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Shark-shooters prepare to kill
31 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Explosive end to shark 'attraction'
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