Report: People influence shark attacks more than sharks do

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Experts: People to blame for shark attacks

By Steve Mitchell, Medical Correspondent From the Science & Technology Desk

Published 5/21/2002

WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- Although shark attacks along the U.S. East Coast last summer made headlines around the world and attacks are certain to occur this year, increasing human population is to blame, not the sharks, a panel of experts said at a press briefing Tuesday.

"People influence shark attacks more than sharks do," said George Burgess, a shark research specialist at the University of Florida.

Shark attacks have increased as the population has increased, added Burgess, who is director of the International Shark Attack File, which collects data on shark attacks that have occurred around the world.

"The U.S. by far has more attacks than any other place in the world," Burgess said, and Florida is the state with the highest number of attacks, followed by California and Hawaii -- all are sites of some of the most popular beaches in the country.

Attacks in all of these states coincide with an increase in population, tourists and surfers, Burgess said, noting the attacks probably will become more common in other areas where they historically have been rare as the population increases and more people head to the beach.

The experts pointed out despite the hysteria surrounding the shark attacks last summer, there actually were fewer reported shark attacks than the previous year -- and half the number of deaths due to attacks.

People are 15 times more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than a shark, Burgess said, highlighting the statistic that 150 people die from falling coconuts each year worldwide compared to the 10 or so who die as the result of a shark attack.

Other creatures that are more dangerous to people than sharks include crocodiles, snakes, bees and jellyfish.

"More people are taken to the hospital" each year for severe sunburn and dehydration at the beach than shark bites, Burgess said.

Sharks need to be protected and conserved because they are economically valuable, said Rebecca Lent, deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition to the role they play in attracting tourists on shark-watching trips and to aquariums, the United States exported $5 million worth of shark products in 2000 and fisherman made $11 million catching sharks, she said.

NOAA has been criticized for its role in managing shark populations and even blamed as being responsible for shark attacks, but Lent said this is "absolutely not true."

Indeed, the number of sharks has actually been declining since the 1970s, said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory. Some experts have connected this decline with the rise in shark fishing that followed the 1975 release of the blockbuster movie "Jaws."

Another reason to protect sharks is they are at the top of the food chain and vital to the ocean ecosystem, Hueter added. If sharks are wiped out, it is uncertain what would happen.

Some have argued that shark attacks on humans are caused by over fishing, which has depleted their normal food sources, thereby causing them to seek alternatives.

This opinion, however, arises from a misconception Burgess told United Press International, because sharks have been over fished themselves and have declined at about the same pace as other fish.

The sharks of concern along the East Coast include the notorious great white, as well as the smaller but just-as-dangerous tiger, bull and mako. Other species involved in attacks on the East Coast include the black-tipped, spinner, black-nosed and sharp-nosed sharks.

Asked whether some areas or beaches were safer than other, Burgess said, "There are sharks in the water all of the time in most areas. Most of us have had encounters and don't know it. Sharks have probably been within 15 feet of every one of us" if we have ventured into the ocean.

To minimize the possibility of shark attack, Burgess recommends minimizing splashing, not entering the water while bleeding, avoiding murky water, staying out of the water from dusk to dawn when sharks are most active, staying in groups and not wearing shiny jewelry.

If you are attacked, Burgess told UPI, "Don't be passive. ... Do whatever it takes to get away. Sharks are predators and they respect power and might. ... Fight back."

If you observe a shark in the water, it is best "to get out of the water and do it in as quiet and calm a way as possible," Burgess said.

"Sharks pick up fear and irregular movements" and kicking and splashing will attract them, he said.
 

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