Just when you thought it was unsafe -- shark bites declining

But experts say risk will increase along with human population

September 05, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Marine experts say sharks have not changed their diets or sworn bloody revenge on humans this summer.

The rash of shark attacks in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in recent weeks, they say, has more to do with human behavior than with sharks.

"We've got so many people in the water that we just increase the odds of human-shark interactions immensely," said Wes Pratt, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Narragansett, R.I.

But the drama of the attacks is irresistible to the news media, and people can be forgiven if they've concluded that sharks are hunting for people.

"The feeding frenzy is not on the part of the sharks, but on the part of the media," said Jose Castro, a shark researcher at the Mote Marine Laboratory, in Sarasota, Fla.

There has been plenty of tragic and terrifying shark news to report. In July, 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast lost his right arm to a 6 1/2 -foot bull shark at a beach on the Florida panhandle. He survived.

On Saturday, a shark bit 10-year-old David Peltier on the leg as he swam in just 4 feet of water in Virginia Beach, Va.

The child died later after a massive loss of blood.

And on Monday, Sergei Zaloukaev, 28, of Washington, D.C., died after a shark bit off his leg and finger at a beach in Avon, N.C.

The man's 23-year-old fiance was critically injured.

In all, the International Shark Attack File, at the University of Florida Museum, has counted 50 shark attacks on humans worldwide so far this year, 39 of them in U.S. waters.

All but 11 were in Florida.

The numbers are still below last year's totals - 84 attacks worldwide, and 53 in the United States.

And 2001 is expected to end with fewer attacks than in recent years.

Long-term, however, the number of shark attacks has been rising for three decades. It is expected to continue to climb - even as shark populations shrink. The reason is more people.

David Schofield, coordinator of the marine animal rescue program at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, said that there are 75 million Americans living within 10 miles of the coast.

"That number is supposed to double by 2025," he said. "There are bound to be more of these incidents as we impact on these habitats that are important to these predators. The sharks aren't doing anything different. We are in their environment."

Marine scientists say they are aware of little that is novel in the recent shark attacks - nothing in the sharks' behavior, and nothing in the environmental conditions - that might explain them.

"I wouldn't look for the answer in the behavior of sharks," Castro said. "Their behavior has been hard-wired eons ago, and it's not going to change drastically overnight."

Despite the premise of blockbuster movies like Jaws, no shark is looking for people to eat. "Most likely they are chasing food fish. They are always looking for a meal," Castro said.

It's not exactly mistaken identity when a shark bites a human, said Pratt. "He's responding to a stimulus. If sharks don't react quickly they aren't going to get food."

Some of this year's non-fatal attacks have been quite obviously precipitated by swimmers, Castro said. One was a spear-fisherman whose dying catch attracted a shark. Another was a swimmer who jumped off a dock onto a bull shark.

Quite a few, he said, were surfers who ventured into the deeper waters where sharks are more likely to hang out.

Schofield said there are two types of shark attacks.

In "bite and run" attacks - the most common and least likely to be fatal, Schofield said - "it's one bite, where the animal is more or less testing its prey. And for whatever reason ... it may or may not come back around and finish off the victim."

The second type is the "bump and bite" attack, more often fatal. "It will bump the victim, testing its response," he said.

A healthy fish would swim for its life; a predator would turn and attack the shark. But a human will likely begin splashing and thrashing in a panic, doing a good imitation of a wounded fish, effectively inviting the shark back for dinner.

Marine fisheries experts say sharks are clearly in far more peril from people, than the reverse.

The commercial shark fishery along the East Coast of the United States in 1999 landed 3.9 million pounds of large coastal sharks, according to Karyl Brewster-Geisz, of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Shark fins will bring $10 to $20 a pound, she said, mostly from a growing market in Asian countries, where people use them for shark-fin soup. Shark meat, often marketed to restaurants and supermarkets as "mako," brings only about 50 cents a pound.

Concerned about declining shark populations, the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1993 imposed quotas for both commercial and recreational landings along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

But the quotas are routinely exceeded - by 38 percent in 1999, according to the fisheries service.

Fishing interests in 1997 blocked federal efforts to lower the quota. A pending agreement would cut the East Coast quota by 36 per cent, to 816 metric tons.

Certain species - the "great" white shark, whale shark and basking shark among them - are off-limits to fishermen and must be released "dead or alive" if caught. The fisheries service is seeking to add 19 more species to that list.

Schofield offered the following rules for avoiding shark bites:

Most sharks are nocturnal feeders. Don't swim in the ocean between dusk and dawn.

Don't wear shiny jewelry in the water. Sunlight reflecting off the baubles can look like bait fish to a shark.

Don't swim into a school of menhaden or other bait fish if one appears off the beach. There may well be a hungry shark in the mix.

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