George Burgess on the Science of Shark Attacks

Great white shark. Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock

Most people know George Burgess as the kahuna of shark attacks. For more than 20 years, Burgess has overseen the International Shark Attack File, a detailed listing of toothy maulings that goes back to the 1500s. He’s been quoted everywhere from The New York Times to the Discovery Channel. Burgess took on that gigwhich requires the orderliness of a librarian, the exactitude of a scientist, and the speaking skills of a public relations whiz—as a result of a voracious appetite for anything having to do with sharks, which he's had since he was a kid. “We all get excited about something as we’re growing up, whether it's sharks or Star Wars,” he says. “Sometimes people are lucky enough to follow along on their early interests, and I always knew early on that I wanted to study marine biology and that was where I was headed all the way through high school and college.”

As a teenager, he caught a nurse shark off the coast of Florida and was hooked. By the 1970s, he was attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina and catching sharks off a research boat. Now, in addition to running the International Shark Attack File, he also serves as the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, teaches ichthyology and marine biology at the University of Florida, and serves as a vice chairman of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, an international organization committed to the science and conservation of sharks and rays. As a result, he was more than happy to talk to us about two things: shark attacks in 2012 and the conservation status of sharks. We’ve divided that interview into two parts.

Up first, we talked to Burgess about the overall increase in shark attacks over the last century, Western Australia’s recent decision to hunt great whites before they attack people, and how climate change could affect the overall number of shark attacks. 

How did you get interested in shark attacks?
Back in the mid-1980s we formed a society of professional shark biologists called the American Elasmobranch Society and one of the things we wanted to do was rejuvenate the International Shark Attack File, which had started in 1958. As part of that gig, we had to have someplace for the file to sit. It’s a physical file in addition to a research project—a series of cases that has to be sorted and maintained and curated and added on to every year. So the logical place to go would be to have that in a museum. I’m a museum biologist, so we transferred it to the Florida Museum in 1988. Here in Florida, where we have more of these incidents than any place in the world, I had already had about 15 or 20 years of watching shark attacks go on, so it was a natural situation.

How have you seen your job change with maintaining the shark attack file for more than 20 some years?
Well, our work with the shark attack file is a subset of our work with sharks and their relatives, the skates and rays. And frankly, our efforts are directed at the conservation and fishery management of sharks and their kin around the world, and so anything we do is related to proper management of these animals. As it turns out, the shark attack file offers us an opportunity to not only, I suppose, help humanity at some level by trying to reduce the opportunities for shark and humans to get together and therefore saving some grief among humans, but equally importantly, it allows us to put it into perspective: shark attacks as a phenomenon are a fairly uncommon event. By contrast, our decimation of sharks and ray populations is going on largely unabated. It gives us a bully pulpit to talk about the real concern of the shark in the scientific world, which is the fate of the sharks.

What has jumped out at you in terms of the shark attacks of 2012?
In any given year, one can predict that in at least one or two localities there will be an uncommonly high number of attacks compared to recent years, and in some cases, lower numbers than in recent years. Fundamentally, shark attacks are an odds game between the numbers of humans in the water and the number of sharks. Because there are oceanographic, and meteorological, and social and economic conditions that vary from year to year, the number of sharks and the number of people in the water may vary, and so, as a result, the opportunities for the two to come together varies. This year we had a relatively high number of attacks in Hawaii compared to previous years, but in other areas of the world, there have been much lower numbers. It’s one of those things where you look at the long-term trends, rather than sudden peaks and sudden drops that may occur, and they’re usually applicable to the number of people or the number of sharks.

This year in Hawaii there have been eight incidents. So folks in Hawaii are more concerned than they were last year, but the fact is that in 2007 they had seven attacks, but the next year they only had one. We tend to remember the high years and forget the low years. It’s part of the coverage, of course. Nobody wants anyone to be attacked. In Hawaii, of those eight attacks there have been no fatalities. So, while the attacks have occurred, the number of fatalities has been zero, and that’s what you want it to be.

This year, across the world, we’ve had 64 attack and six fatalities. By contrast, last year we had 75 attacks and a dozen fatalities. So, unless things change grossly over the next three weeks, our numbers will be lower this year.

One place both this year and last year that’s gotten a lot of attention is Western Australia, which had five deaths in a 12-month span.
There were two fatalities in 2012. There were three fatalities in calendar year 2011.

One of the decisions they made is to have the ability to hunt a great white before an attack is made. What do you think about that decision?
I think it’s a very foolish decision. It’s about as retro a decision as you could make in the modern world. The fact is that white sharks are highly migratory species that move from Point A to Point B readily. They move as much as 30 miles in a day. The chances of capturing an individual that was involved in a shark attack are slim to none. Keep in mind that white sharks—they are known as white pointers in Australia—are endangered species in that country, as they are in the United States, because they’re the largest of the predatory sharks and their numbers are quite low. Their numbers over the years have declined in many areas. They are a nationally protected species. As a result, what have you have here is a sanctioned kill of an endangered species, which is about as contrary to any logical thought process that I can think of.

Does Western Australia know what caused the fatalities? Does it seem out of the ordinary that they should take this step?
Any time you have fatalities in close proximity of space or time, it suggests that something is up and modifications of routines are in order. I have not been to that location, nor been asked to be involved in any of their scientific processes. Of course, there are plenty of good scientists in Australia and certainly they would be wise to bring in their own experts. But that said, I haven’t heard any logical explanation as to why there’s more—only the sort of gut reaction of let’s go kill some sharks.

The reality is, something is going on out there. We do know it’s an area where there’s migration of great white sharks and there’s a whale migration route that goes through that area as well. Of course, where there’s a whale migration route, there’s going to be sharks to try and take advantage of that food resource. It’s obviously a good place to be a whale and a white shark. Without the data, I can’t say, but perhaps the number of humans entering the water is rising through recreational activities. Maybe some of these events are occurring in the hot spots for white sharks. I would have to study the situation more carefully to come to any conclusions, but it’s a possibility. If there are more people entering the hotspot areas, then we can think about not entering certain areas at certain times of year to reduce our risk. Or, to sign on with the understanding that if I’m going into this area at this time, then I’m taking a personal risk.

That’s the fundamental problem with shark attacks and human perception of shark attacks. We tend to forget that when we enter the sea, we’re entering a foreign environment. It’s not ours. We can’t breathe underwater. When we enter the sea, it’s a wilderness experience. In any wilderness experience, there are potential dangers to be involved in that environment. Luckily for us, the sea is a pretty benevolent place. Each year, millions of people enter the sea and come out unscratched and unscathed and oblivious to the notion that they’ve had a wilderness experience. But we all need to remember that, especially if we go in areas where large predators such as white shark live.

One of the other big areas was Reunion Island, where they ordered the killing of 20 sharks after two attacks in two weeks this summer. Do you know what might have been going on there? Do you think that was the right call?
Basically you can ditto my remarks from above. Once again, there has not been the correct study of the circumstances of the attacks, both this year and last year as well, where the obvious changes of contact level come into play. Once again, without having been to that place, and I haven’t been asked to go there, I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on there, except that the animals involved there are most likely bull sharks rather than white sharks. It’s clearly a very different scenario involving why the contacts are occurring. But, that said, if you have an increase in the number of incidents over a short period of time, there have almost always been some changes, either environmentally or behaviorally.

On the East Coast, Ocearch has SPOT tags on great whites swimming off the coast of South Carolina and North Carolina. On the West Coast, GTOPP has great whites tagged with acoustic and PAT tags. People can now view sharks in real time on apps. How important is shark tagging, and giving the public access to see what they’re doing?
I think those kind of programs are excellent in that they really help people visualize what the sharks are doing. They do not, however, endeavor or serve as a forewarning in an area because people are just following the path of an individual shark at any given time—the populations are much bigger than that. And, individuals move in accordance of their own needs and their own rules of engagement. What the tagging does show is exactly what I mentioned earlier in regards to Australia—these animals are highly mobile and they move up and down the coastlines. We see white sharks come down to the northeast coast of Florida in December and January when it gets cold. Interestingly enough, they are following the same pattern as right whales, which come down to the southern coast of Georgia and northern Florida. The sharks are probably taking advantage of the weak and the old in terms of feeding. Those same animals may be up in Massachusetts later in the summer. And that’s where the animals you’re talking about were tagged—off the coast of Massachusetts. It does help the public understand that these are very mobile animals. Which is why it’s so farcical to think it’s possible to kill an offender, the eye for an eye sort of thing. It just doesn’t work in the natural world.

One thing I noticed looking back at the numbers, it seems that the U.S. seems to outpace all other countries in attacks?
Every year the U.S. is probably good for about two-thirds of the number of incidents. And the answer is reasonably simple. 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, particular 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.

Who gets attacked the most?
Statistically, it’s a Caucasian male between the ages of 14 and 28 who is surfing. That’s who is spending the most time in the water where the sharks are most common and doing things that are provocative. Surfing is a provocative sport. There’s a lot of kicking and arm splashing in the middle of an area where sharks are quite common. And surfers spend more time in the water than any other group. They’re out there day and night surfing. As a group, around the world, surfers are still the number one group. In Brazil, which didn’t have a big history of shark attacks until the 1990s, suddenly things jumped up because surfing took off and you had more kids in the water.

And in terms of the history of the International Shark Attack File overall, are you seeing trends going up?
If one looks at the attacks decade by decade, which is the best way to look at this stuff because—as I indicated to you earlier—the stats change yearly based on localized conditions, so we really get to see what the overall trends are. If you look at it every decade since the the beginning of the 20th century, we’ve had more attacks. In fact, if you go to our website you’ll see the numbers of attacks rise and the human population mirrors that increase. As years go on and we have more people in the human population, we’re having more people enter the water. As a result, there’s an increase in the chances that human and sharks get together, and the number of attacks continues to rise. Expect that trend to continue. It’s not a change in attack rate. That’s not getting any higher. In fact, it’s probably going down because there are so many humans going into the water, but the numbers go up. There’s a whole lot more car accidents now than there were in 1912 because there are more cars on the road. There are more humans in the water now. We’re actually flooding sharks out of their own environment.

Are there trends you see in the attacks that mirror the declines in the populations you see in some types of sharks?
That’s a difficult one to see because you have multiple variables engaged in the situation. Certainly along the East Coast of the United States for a good number of years there was a reduction in the number of sharks as a result of overfishing. That trend has now turned a corner and they’re coming back up, although we’re not quite where we once were. But we didn’t see great drops in the number of attacks, and the reason, of course, was while the shark numbers were declining, the number of humans entering the water continued to rise. So, as a result, things kind of evened out. You didn’t have a direct line cause and effect because you had two variables. There’s no smoking gun in terms of decline in numbers and reduction in shark attacks because of the human part. 

Is there anything I didn’t ask?
As a corollary to your last question, with global warming and water temperatures rising, which means warmer waters moving up in the Northern Hemisphere and down in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s going to make it more habitable for sharks, which tend to be mostly warmer water species. For example, in the area off New England and New York, we don’t have lots of sharks, or we have very few, along the coastline. But as water temperatures warm more to the north, sharks are more likely to be able to live in those waters. The other thing, of course, is the humans are more likely to enter the waters and spend more time in the water. With global warming, in theory, one could suspect that the number of interactions between sharks and humans could increase, simply because the two will have added territory where they will co-exist.

This is the second in a series of interviews about sharks.
Part 1: Surviving a Great White Shark Attack

—Joe Spring