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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
Shark attacks: On the increase?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Mr Burgess said there is a big misconception about shark attacks.
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.
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