05/23/2014 11:50 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2014

It's Beach Season. What About Sharks?

Summer is just around the corner. And that means millions of people are thinking about a nice cool dip in the sea, a lazy day spent in the sand and surf. Not so fast. Lurking within the oceans' shadowy depths is the ultimate predator, a creature that many people have come to fear and revile. Shark!

Go Back in the Water or Not to Go Back In the Water?
Should we really be afraid to go in the ocean? Do sharks intentionally attack people for food?

It turns out that sharks should be the ones to be afraid. Humans kill tens of millions of sharks each year for their fins, meat, oil, and cartilage. Scientists estimate that in some cases up to ninety percent of the large sharks have been fished out of the sea. The loss of these top ocean predators can lead to:

• Overpopulation of prey species,
• Survival of genetically weak or diseased organisms,
• Ecosystem imbalances, which can severely impact valuable marine resources.

By providing for a healthy ocean and ecotourism opportunities, sharks are ultimately much more valuable alive than dead. Part of the problem is that sharks need a makeover, a publicity do-over.

Shark Myths
There are some 500 species of sharks and most look nothing like the poster for the movie Jaws or those seen in Sharknado. Many sharks don't even get to be greater than three feet in length. Centuries ago when people had a limited understanding of shark behavior and biology, they were labeled "man-eaters". In the 1950s, a researcher suggested that sharks could go rogue, developing a taste for human flesh. Both of these ideas have since been proven false. Experts now believe most shark bites are the result of mistaken identity, a perceived threat of competition, trespassing into a shark's space, or a defensive response. And remember that picture of a giant shark with razor-sharp teeth gnashing on a huge hunk of meat? That's usually based on an artificial situation set up to get the perfect shot. Most sharks don't look or feed like that. Bottom line⎯Humans are not on the menu.

Shark Speak
In a 2013 paper in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, shark experts Drs. Christopher Neff and Robert Hueter suggest that we should rethink how human-shark encounters are described. For the most part, such incidents are called shark attacks, implying an intentional, if not criminal, act of harm. They suggest an analogy. Dogs bite when teased, afraid, startled, or provoked. Such incidents are not considered or called attacks. On occasion dogs do attack with intention of harm, but such occurrences are much rarer. The same could be said for sharks. Most incidents are sightings, encounters with no or limited contact, bites, and only on rare occasion, true attacks. The unfortunate truth is that sharks may use biting as a way to identify their food⎯thus the bite and release phenomenon. Humans are not good shark food. This in no way minimizes the tragic consequences of injuries or fatalities that have or can occur due to sharks. However, if we try to better understand human-shark interactions and change how we describe them, it may help us to become more tolerant and less fearful of sharks, and less likely to condone the wanton killing or culling of sharks. Instead of shark attacks, we should call interactions by what they are⎯sightings, encounters, bites, and the rare fatal bite, or what could be thought of as a true attack.

According to Neff and Hueter, of the confirmed 637 serious shark attacks in Florida from 1882 to 2012, only eleven were fatal shark attacks. The rest were shark encounters, bites, or sightings. That means that of the recorded, serious shark attacks in Florida over 129 years only 2% were actual fatal shark bites.

Are Shark Encounters on the Rise?
Burgeoning human populations and our increased propensity for recreation in the sea simply means more people are going into the ocean. Media outlets also now have access to news from even remote locations. And sharks get ratings. Statistically speaking, you are more likely to die from a defective toaster, lightning strike or just driving to the grocery store. So don't be afraid to go in the ocean. Enjoy relaxing at the seaside, splashing in the waves, and diving into all the undersea wonders the ocean has to offer.

Tips to Avoid Sharks
If you are still concerned, here is some practical advice to avoid potential shark encounters this summer:

• Do not swim at dusk or dawn (when ocean predators tend to be more active) or if bait fish are abundant in the water.
• Avoid swimming in areas where people are fishing.
• If fishing, do not carry your bait or catch in the water with you.
• Pay attention to the signs and information provided by lifeguards or other officials.
• If you see a shark, do not corner or harass it in any way (if you pulled a dog's tail it will probably bite you too).
• Do not wear shiny jewelry, especially in murky water where sharks may be present.

Dive in!