July 30, 2013

Numbers put teeth behind the truth about shark attacks

By Juliet Eilperin / The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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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Still, there have been nonlethal events. Last month, 63-year-old surf instructor Barbara Corey was bitten off Holden Beach in Brunswick County, N.C., the first mid-Atlantic shark strike this year. Last year there were two, both in North Carolina, where 6-year-old Brooklyn Daniel was struck off Brunswick and 33-year-old Megan Konkler was bitten off Nags Head Beach.

Florida's Brevard and Volusia counties, including tourist hot spots such as New Smyrna Beach, routinely lead the nation in the annual number of shark strikes because they have a huge number of surfers and swimmers and are in the migration routes of blacktip and sandbar sharks. Together they made up 15 of the 53 recorded U.S. attacks last year, though most of these tend to be minor scrapes since the species there are less dangerous than those found in other areas.

Common-sense precautions – avoiding areas where seals congregate, staying close to shore and staying out of the water around dawn and dusk, when sharks tend to be feeding and water visibility is low – are the best ways to avoid coming into a contact with a shark, experts say.

The shark species that pose the greatest risks to humans are great white, tiger, bull and oceanic whitetip sharks. So the regions of the world where some of these sharks swim – including Australia, South Africa and California, where great whites regularly migrate – tend to have more fatalities. Of the seven fatalities last year, according to the International Shark Attack File, three were off South Africa, two of Australia, one off California and one off the French island of Runion in the Indian Ocean. Despite its small size, Runion has emerged as one of the world's deadliest shark sites: a 15-year-old was killed July 15 off a beach where swimming was prohibited, the second Runion death this year and the fifth since 2011.

Scientists do not know why this number is so high, but George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, said he suspects human factors are playing a role. Island residents have cut back on shark fishing because of concerns over the toxins in shark meat; Burgess said an increase in global tourism means more people who are not familiar with the island are visiting and swimming there. "Now you've got a great rush of people in the water who don't know the area, and don't know the risks," he said.

Christopher Neff, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney who researches the human-shark relationship, wrote in an email that humans are becoming more open to protecting sharks in the open ocean even as they're growing more hostile to those near shore. In March, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna agreed to impose new rules on the trade in hammerhead, oceanic white tip and porbeagle sharks under which countries would have to prove their catch was sustainable before exporting these fish.

In December, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands joined together to create the world's largest shark sanctuary, emulating small island nations such as Palau and the Maldives in banning all shark fishing in their waters.

But both western Australia and Runion have authorized shark hunts in the wake of deadly strikes there. Neff noted that researchers have become better at tracking sharks' swimming patterns with the use of satellite and radio tagging, but sharing this sort of information "can arouse public anxiety," and it can't prevent some of the inevitable human-shark interactions that arise.

"Anywhere we have a beach, we likely have sharks," he wrote. "The difference is that until now, we didn't know it."

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