Florida’s active hurricane season last year spawned the perfect storms to reduce the Sunshine State’s number of shark attacks, which dipped to their lowest level in more than a decade and pulled down the national average as well, a new University of Florida study finds. “When there are high winds and high surf, people don’t go into the water,” said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File housed at UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History. “It’s a little hard to have a shark attack if you’re in your vehicle heading inland as fast as you can drive.”
The 12 attacks off Florida coasts were by far more than any other state but significantly fewer than the 30 recorded there in 2003, said Burgess, who oversees the file, the world’s largest database of shark attacks. Florida has not seen so few shark attacks since 1993, when there were 10.
“As Florida goes, so goes the United States and in large part the world in terms of statistics because Florida has more shark attacks year in and year out than any other place in the world,” he said. As in recent years, the largest share of attacks occurred in North American waters, but the 30 attacks in U.S. territorial waters, including Hawaii, are down considerably from the 41 recorded in 2003, 47 in 2002 and 50 each in 2001 and 2000, Burgess said.
Elsewhere last year, there were 12 attacks in Australia, five each in Brazil and South Africa and three in Reunion Island, with single incidents reported in the Bahamas, Cuba, Egypt, Fiji, New Zealand and Venezuela.
The worldwide total of 61 shark attacks in 2004 was slightly higher than the 57 in 2003, but lower than totals of 63 in 2002, 68 in 2001 and 78 in 2000, Burgess said.
“Normally, we don’t put much stock in year-to-year fluctuations unless there’s a huge trend like what we saw this year in Florida, where there was a very obvious case of cause and effect,” he said.
The number of deaths from shark attacks worldwide increased to seven in 2004, from four in 2003, three in 2002 and four in 2001, but it was still lower than the 11 fatalities in 2000.
The fatality rate over the past five years is noticeably below that of the early 1990s, continuing a trend of fewer deaths over the past century, Burgess said. In many parts of the world, strides have been made in increasing numbers of lifeguards on beaches, installing signs warning people to stay out of the ocean at certain times when the risk of an attack is high and improving emergency medical care for shark-bite victims, he said.
“Certainly, shark attacks are going to continue to rise as long as the human population around the world increases and more people are in the water, but the percentage of those attacks resulting in deaths is continuing to decline,” he said.
Two of last year’s fatalities occurred in Australia, and single deaths were reported in Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, California and Hawaii.
Swimmers and waders were the most frequent victims, accounting for 25 incidents, followed by surfers and windsurfers, 24, and divers and snorkelers, eight. One person was entering the water when attacked, while the activities of three were not ascertained.
In past years, surfers were attacked most often. Although surfers likely spend longer stretches of time in the water than swimmers or waders, they are outnumbered by swimmers and waders, Burgess said.
“Surfers are generally in deeper water where sharks tend to be a little more common and their activities – the kicking of feet and splashing of hands – are very provocative to a shark,” he said.
The highest number of Florida attacks occurred on the central East Coast in Volusia County, where an inlet near New Smyrna Beach is a popular surfing site, Burgess said. There were three attacks there in 2004, down dramatically from the 13 reported in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 22 in 2001.
Burgess attributes the decline to the region being hit by strong winds from hurricanes Charley, Jeanne and Frances. “Volusia County had more than its share of bad beach days as a result of the storms,” he said.
Other Florida counties experiencing attacks in 2004 were Palm Beach and St. Johns, two each, and Brevard, Duval, Lee, Pinellas and Martin, one each.