July 30, 2013

Numbers put teeth behind the truth about shark attacks

By Juliet Eilperin / The Washington Post

With beach season in full swing, the question inevitably arises: What are the chances of getting attacked by a shark?

click image to enlarge

Walter Szulc Jr., in kayak at left, looks back at the dorsal fin of an approaching shark at Nauset Beach in Orleans, Mass., on Cape Cod in July 2012. An unidentified man in the foreground looks toward them. Both men got safely to shore.

The Associated Press / Shelly Negrotti

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In a phrase: Extraordinarily low – though not nonexistent. It is higher in certain parts of the country (Florida tops the list) than in others, and in some places (off Cape Cod) legendary great whites are making a comeback that can be frightening to beachgoers. But is it really worth worrying about a shark strike or considering forgoing an ocean swim as an act of self-preservation?

Let's consider the numbers, courtesy of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Last year, 80 unprovoked shark strikes took place worldwide: Seven resulted in deaths, including one in California. Fifty-three strikes took place in U.S. waters, nearly half of them off Florida.

According to the file's analysis of 2000 data, beachgoers faced a 1-in-2-million chance of dying from drowning and other causes based on visits to East and West coast beaches. By contrast, they faced a 1-in-11.5-million chance of being attacked by a shark, and less than a 1-in-264-million chance of dying from a shark bite, since just one person died that year in U.S. waters from an attack.

Put another way, more Americans were killed by collapsing sinkholes (16) than sharks (11) between 1990 and 2006, and more by tornadoes (125) than sharks (6) in Florida between 1985 and 2010. (And for all you "Sharknado" fans, those were shark-free tornadoes.)

"Tides and currents kill more people (at the beach) than sharks that kill people," said Gregory Skomal, a shark biologist with Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

But in some parts of the country, the number of shark spottings has risen in recent years. Last year, there were more than 20 confirmed shark sightings at Cape Cod beaches, in areas including its outer beaches and off the mainland, and a 50-year old man was bitten by a shark that scientists believe was a great white. (The swimmer, a Colorado native, was scarred but survived with limbs intact.)

This summer, eight great whites already have been spotted off various Cape Cod beaches, though some of the sightings may involve the same shark. The National Park Service just issued precautionary guidelines for Cape Cod swimmers.

Skomal has been tracking great whites off Cape Cod for years: He and his colleagues tagged five in 2009 and 17 in 2012. The probable reason for the increase is a resurgence in the seal population, which has been recovering over the past four decades since enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which outlawed a kind of hunting that caused the seals' precipitous decline. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the seal population in the western North Atlantic has increased by tens of thousands over the past few decades.

"I fully anticipate that the white sharks will continue to take advantage of this resource," Skomal said, noting that half of the sharks tagged in 2011 came back to the areas where they were tagged the following year. (Researchers use a few different tags, including acoustic ones that rely on radio transmitters and satellite tags) "Everything is clicking for (the sharks) and the cafe is open for them. They will continue to take advantage of that."

A spate of shark strikes in 2001 that claimed the lives of swimmers – including two in the mid-Atlantic, 10-year old David Peltier off Virginia Beach and 28-year-old Sergei Zaloukaev off Cape Hatteras, N.C. – earned the season the nickname "Summer of the Shark." Zaloukaev was the last person to die from a shark bite in the mid-Atlantic. (His girlfriend was bitten also but survived.)

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