The number of shark attacks has been on the rise due to human and seal population increases, shark migration and warming temperatures. Since the infamous shark attacks at the New Jersey shore that killed four people in July of 1916 which went on to inspire the Steven Spielberg film, "Jaws," the shark population has been declining due to overfishing.
"Each decade shark attacks have increased," said George H. Burgess, Director of the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File. "This decade will have more attacks than last simply because the human population has grown."
A shark attack is an interaction between humans and sharks that results in significant injuries and an occasional death. Shark bites, on the other hand, are interactions in which injuries to humans are small, similar to that of a dog bite, Burgess said.
"Getting attacked by a shark is almost the most unlikely thing imaginable," said Dr. Samuel H. Gruber of the Bimini Biological Field Station.
According to the International Shark Attack File, Gruber's statement is on par with researched data proving that a person is more likely to die from a tornado, being struck by lightning or being attacked by a dog than from being attacked by a shark. However, shark bites are a different story.
Tips for Avoiding a Shark Attack:
- Avoid being in the water between sunset and sunrise.
- Stay in a group and do not wander too far from shore.
- Avoid wearing shiny jewelry; the reflected light resembles fish scales.
- Avoid brightly colored or patterned clothing, as sharks can see contrast well.
- Do not enter waters being used by sport or commercial fisherman.
- Avoid entering waters with sewage output and/or entering the water if you are bleeding.
The Sunshine State is home to what is known as the "Shark-bite capital of the world," where approximately 25 people are bitten each year, New Smyrna Beach. This beach is known for its sandbars, created from moving sand brought about by the movement of an inlet connected to the Atlantic from a lagoon. These sandbars create waves ideal for surfing, making the beach a top destination for surfers, vacationers and native Floridians. It also composes the perfect mix for shark and human interaction.
"Inlets are a shark's aquatic smorgasbord; it's like a soup of bait fish, predatory fish and surfers," said Burgess. "As a result, surfers get more shark bites."
Surfers tend to be the main attraction for sharks as far as bites go due to the amount of splashing their hands and feet make while paddling. Sharks normally grab at these splashes, mistaking them as movement of their normal prey including fish, sea turtles, sea lions and seals. Once they bite and realize their mistake, they usually back away, classifying most bites as "hit and runs," according to Burgess.
The top four beaches on the East coast with the highest risk of being bitten by a shark include New Smyrna Beach and Daytona Beach, Fla., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Cape Hatteras, N.C., Burgess said.
Responsible for the most bites, typically consisting of puncture wounds and lacerations, is the Blacktip shark. However, three other species are most prevalently known for attacking; these include the Tiger shark, Bull shark and White Shark.
Bull and Tiger sharks are coastal species typically found in the East; these fish are noted for their normalities of repeated attacking. Found on the other side of the United States, White sharks commonly inhabit the West coast waters, where water temperatures are lower.
"At this time of year, water temperatures in the Northeast are reaching their peaks, so sharks have been moving northward and dispersing, following the warming temperatures," said Burgess.
In previous years, sharks have been spotted on various occasions off the coast of southern New England due to a different factor, seals. As seal populations have begun to recover in recent years, sharks have been attracted to these coastal areas, finding the seals an easy meal.
Also posing a threat to bring these big fish farther north than usual is the global warming phenomenon, according to Burgess. For now though, researchers will only continue to observe and further research sharks migration patterns in association with warming waters.
While multiple factors will influence the migration of sharks towards the north, those who research sharks insist that odds of being attacked are low and they are "feared without reason," according to Gruber.
It is additionally argued that in reality, humans are the culprits, invading the species' natural habitat.
"We overwhelm these animals in their environment," said Burgess. "Sharks have become the poster-children to the decline of the ocean."
Despite the odds, to reduce your risk of a shark encounter, see some of the tips from George H. Burgess Director of the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File and his colleagues.