WEDNESDAY, Feb. 27, 2019 — Shark attacks get plenty of media attention and strike fear into the hearts of swimmers, but a new study finds that such attacks are few and far between.
It’s true that the number of shark attacks has increased over time, but the rate is still very low, researchers said.
“Humans have always demonized sharks because they are elusive and live in an environment that’s not native to us — the sea,” said study co-author George Burgess, director emeritus at the University of Florida. “We would like people to know that these shark attack events need to be put into perspective whenever they occur. This study helps us step back and look at the big picture.”
The research team was led by Stephen Midway, an assistant professor in the department of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University. They looked at international shark attack statistics from 1960 to 2015, from the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
“I was curious what the likelihood of shark attacks is in a certain number of years at different places around the world,” Midway said in a Louisiana State news release.
The researchers factored in the regional populations to determine the rate of shark attacks worldwide.
“I think this information could contribute to a more scientifically grounded discussion about sharks in general and help with the management and conservation of them,” Midway said.
The researchers modeled shark attacks in 14 countries and specific areas within the three countries that had the highest number of shark attacks — the United States, Australia and South Africa.
Although the number of attacks remain extremely low, they have doubled over the past 20 years in highly populated areas, including the east coast of the United States and southern Australia, the study found.
“As development increases along the coast and in beach communities, more residents and tourists frequent these waters. With more people in the water, the chance for a shark attack increases,” Midway explained.
Attacks, however, didn’t increase in all areas around the world. And in places where shark attacks increased, the odds of being attacked were still 1 in several million, he said.
From 1960 to 2015, 1,215 shark attacks were reported in the United States. Most of these attacks caused only minor skin injuries. Over 55 years, only about 2 percent of attacks, or about 24, were fatal, Midway’s team found.
Other studies have shown that shark attacks are often the result of several additional factors. An increase in attacks in North Carolina in 2015 appears to have been caused by a very warm summer, the amount of food for the sharks, and more beachgoers.
Other factors related to increased shark attacks include the number of people in the water and the types of water activities.
“We ought to think of the risk of a shark attack like we would think of the risk of a car accident,” Midway noted. “For example, we don’t assess our personal risk of getting into a car accident by the national statistics on car accidents year over year. We think about our specific car, the weather, the road conditions and other very local factors.”
The report was published online Feb. 27 in the journal PLOS One.
The Florida Museum of Natural History offers more on shark attacks.
Posted: February 2019
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