Shark Attacks Projected to Increase

Come on in—the water might be fine

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You're never entirely alone in the water.     Photo: Stasiek Pytel/ThinkStock

Summer temperatures might be hitting unbearable degrees, but consider other ways to keep cool before cannonballing off the coast into marine waters. U.S. shark experts say there will be more shark attacks along beaches this summer than last. 

According to the Florida Program for Shark Research, the top three reasons for the increase are that more people are going into the water, there are more sharks on both coasts, and global warming means shoreline waters get warmer earlier, prompting people to spend more days waterborne. 

The program is in a unique position to make such claims. Director George Burgess and his colleagues conducted the most recent census of great white sharks. They wound up with supporting evidence for the idea that sharks don't need extra protection from us bony appetizers. Discovering that there are more than 2,400 great whites off the coast of California, the program bolstered the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's position that this population of the species should not be listed under the Endangered Species Act. The study was a response to another study claiming there were only 219 sharks in the area.

Although news of increased shark-attack risk is no reason to jump for joy, the flip side of the matter is: Sharks are apex predators—meaning they dominate their given food chain—and apex predator population size gives indications to the health of the overall food chain.

"If something is wrong with the largest, most powerful group in the sea, then something is wrong with the sea, so it's a relief to find they're in good shape," Burgess said in an interview with Discovery News. He suggests that U.S. regulatory agencies and their conservation measures, many initiated under the impression that sharks needed help, have done a lot to help sharks boost their numbers.

CAVEAT: Before you let the Jaws theme become the soundtrack to your life, put these numbers in perspective. The reasons for the rise don't necessarily correlate with increased aggression. Not only that, but this past summer, there were 27 shark attacks, with only one proving fatal. Moreover, sharks don't actively seek human sustenance, instead preferring fish, seals, sea lions, and recently, unprotected bags of chum.

When Outside did an interview with Burgess in late 2012, he offered great context for why most shark attacks happen in this country:

The U.S. has a large coastline and is a very large country. We have two major continental coastlines plus Hawaii, so we're probably one of the biggest areas for shark-inhabited coastline around. Plus, you have a large population that has the means and the interest to enter the water on a daily basis. Because we're a rich country, we have the ability to spend money to go to the beach and do it in style. We also have in some quarters, particularly in Florida and Hawaii, the ability to enter the water year-round. It's not surprising that Florida leads the U.S. in incidents and, in fact, is usually the geographic region in the world with the most incidents. It's entirely predictable based on the number of humans in the water and the number of sharks.

If you are interested in boning up on ways to avoid becoming contents of a cartilaginous belly, Burgess has some tips:

  • Stay in groups.
  • Swim during daylight hours.
  • Don't enter waterways at waterway openings, sandbars, or places where depths shift dramatically. "Fish tend to concentrate in these areas, drawing sharks like a loud dinner bell," Burgess said.
  • Don't dress to impress. Just as we're attracted to shiny things, sharks are attracted to glittery accessories that can be misinterpreted as fish scales.

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