Number of shark attacks declining


Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2004 at 1:24 a.m.

For college and high school students already dreaming of Spring Break at the beach, the declining number of shark attacks in recent years is good news.

But it's a cause of worry for George Burgess, director of the International Shark File at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History.

While he's glad fewer people are being bitten by sharks, Burgess believes the drop in the number of shark attacks in recent years - 30 percent since 2000 - has its root in the dwindling shark population worldwide.

The number of shark attacks has dropped for the third year in a row, with 55 unprovoked attacks reported last year. There were 63 reported attacks in 2002, 68 in 2001 and a record 79 reported attacks in 2000.

Researchers don't get excited about a year-to-year variation in the number of shark attacks. But three consecutive years of dropping attack rates is making them take notice, Burgess said.

"It's beginning to signal to us a little bit that maybe there is something happening here," he said.

Burgess said shark fishing has increased during the past 20 years, and the effects are showing.

On the East Coast of the United States, some shark species have seen a 40 percent to 50 percent drop in population in the past 15 years, Burgess said. A few shark populations have declined as much as 70 percent.

The drop in shark attacks may also be caused by the fact that fewer people are in the water - a result of an economic downturn that left fewer people able to afford beach vacations.

People also seem to be heeding simple advice from attack experts: stay away from sharks.

Burgess said swimmers shouldn't go into the ocean if sharks have been spotted recently. Don't swim in the ocean at dawn and dusk, when sharks are feeding and are most active. And avoid places where shark are likely to be found, such as inlets, channels and the troughs between sand bars, he said.

The largest number of shark attacks in Florida in 2003 occurred in Volusia County, near an inlet near New Smyrna Beach that is popular with surfers, Burgess said.

More swimmers are realizing that they have to co-exist with sharks, he said.

"It's not like jumping into the YMCA pool. You're jumping into a foreign environment," he said. "You wouldn't think about going to Africa and not worrying about the lions and leopards and water buffalo."

Ashley Rowland can be reached at (352) 374-5095 or rowlana@gvillesun.com.

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