UF Study: Shark Attacks Dip Last Year But Fatality Recorded in Florida
GAINESVILLE — Sharks have taken a holiday from humans as the number of attacks from the predators has declined worldwide and in Florida as well, a new University of Florida study finds.
Although the rate of violent human-shark encounters has dipped, Florida experienced its first fatality in a decade with the Nov. 21 death of a 9-year-old boy off Vero Beach. This attack also was Florida’s first in 22 years involving a shore-based recreational activity such as wading, swimming or surfing, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, which is housed at UF.
“It’s very unusual to have a fatal shark attack in Florida waters,” Burgess said. “Most of our cases involve hit-and-run attacks, in which the shark, apparently mistaking a person for a fish, makes a quick grab, then apparently realizing its error, lets go and swims away. The damage left to humans is usually nothing more than a few scars.”
Between 1997 and 1998, the total number of shark attacks worldwide dropped slightly from 57 to 49, considerably less than its all-time high of 72 in 1995. Florida also experienced a decline last year from 25 to 19 attacks, the newly released study shows.
Scientists cannot explain the decline but wonder if there has been a reduction in shark numbers from overfishing, changes in weather patterns or variations in the proximity of currents to the shoreline, which can affect nutrient levels in the water near the shore and ultimately the number of fish available for shark to feed upon, he said.
There also could be fewer people in the water for sharks to bump into. “If there is a downturn in the economy, you’re going to get less tourists going to the beaches and therefore less time spent in the water,” he said. “The big hitch in interpreting our statistics is that we don’t know how many people are going into the water and how much time they stay in.”
More than half of the unprovoked human-shark attacks in 1998 (25) occurred in North American waters, with three-quarters of these in Florida. Other regions with attacks were Africa (18); South America (four); Australia (one) and Pacific Ocean islands (one).
Besides Florida, fatalities were recorded in Brazil (two), South Africa, Australia and Mozambique.
“The big news was that South Africa had more attacks than it has in many years,” Burgess said. It experienced 17 attacks in 1998, more than three times the five per year it averaged during the past decade, he said.
Burgess said he received no reports of unusual oceanographic conditions in South Africa, except for greater numbers of sardines, which could attract more sharks.
In Florida, Volusia County followed the previous year’s trend in having the most attacks (11), followed by Martin (three), Indian River (two), Brevard (one), Lee (one) and Palm Beach (one).
“The Daytona Beach area in Volusia County is very highly used by waders and swimmers, and perhaps even more importantly, Ponce Inlet is an area where surfers are found in the greatest abundance in Florida,” he said.
Surfers continue to be the most often targeted recreational group worldwide, accounting for 69 percent of all 1998 attacks, Burgess said. The remaining attacks occurred equally upon swimmers (15.5 percent) and divers (15.5 percent).
Surfers are frequent victims because their kicking and splashing at the water’s surface mimic the activities of a mullet or some other food item of the shark, he said.
In the case of James Willie Tellasmon, the 9-year-old boy who died at Vero Beach, he was flailing to stay afloat in fairly deep water, which likely attracted the shark, which grabbed the child and pulled him underwater, Burgess said. An adult probably would not have been dragged underwater by the 6-foot tiger shark implicated in the attack, he said.
Before Tellasmon, Florida’s last fatal shark attacks were in 1988. One involved a 38-year-old man swimming from a boat off Shell Island near Panama City, and the other involved a 38-year-old male scuba diver in Biscayne National Park.