Recent shark attacks worry beachgoers, but experts say they are very rare

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PATRICK WHITTLE Associated Press

Recent shark bites in Florida and Hawaii and a suspected case in New Jersey have sparked interest in an old summer question for bathers: Is it safe to go in the water?

Scientists and researchers who study sharks said the overwhelming answer to that question is yes, it is safe. Potentially dangerous human-shark interactions are rare, and serious injuries and deaths from bites are becoming rarer, the scientists said.

However, the dramatic nature of shark bites and the stories of survivors, like Hawaiian surfer Mike Morita’s story of battling a shark in April, capture the imagination. It’s a good idea to remember how rare shark bites really are, the scientists said.

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Typically, there have been around 70 to 80 unprovoked shark bites annually, worldwide, for the past decade. And shark bites are rare, and have been especially rare recently.

There were only 57 unprovoked bites last year, and five of those were fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. There were nine of those deaths in the previous year.

The shark attack archive reported a year ago that one reason for the decline in bites could be the global decline in shark populations.

It’s too early in the warm season to have any idea how active this year will be for human-shark interactions, said Greg Skomal, a shark expert with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

“If we get a lot of bait fish and forage fish species close to shore, we have a super hot summer that brings people to the beaches, more people in the water, then we can determine the risk,” Skomal said.

What are the areas most prone to shark encounters?

The United States and Australia are typically the sites for the most reported shark bites. Florida had more bites than any other place on Earth last year, with 16 unprovoked bites, two of which resulted in amputations, according to the shark attack file.

This month, two Florida fishermen were bitten by sharks in separate incidents less than 36 hours apart.

The shark bite rate has held steady in recent years, but it might seem like a more common occurrence because of the prevalence of smartphones, said Nick Whitney, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Recently developed smartphone apps allow users to report shark sightings in real time.

What kinds of sharks are cause for concern?

The white shark, the bull shark and the tiger shark are the sharks most cited by the International Shark Attack File for unprovoked bites. Those species are large sharks that also cause the most deaths.

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that many shark interactions are with smaller species that are unlikely to cause serious injury, said James Sulikowski, director of the Oregon Coastal Marine Experiment Station at Oregon State University. Those species could bite a human, realize we’re not their preferred prey, and move on, he said.

Yes. You have an exponentially higher risk of being hurt in a car accident on the way to the beach than you are of seriously hurting yourself from a shark bite.

Millions of people flock to the beach in the summer when the weather warms up, and that increases the chance of interacting with a shark. But by taking simple precautions, such as not bringing shiny objects into the water and not swimming at dawn and dusk, bathers can reduce any chance of a dangerous shark encounter, Sulikowski said.

“We are intruders in their environment. What we can do is be logical and safe about it and avoid areas where sharks will feed,” Sulikowski said. “When an interaction occurs, it’s a mistaken identity: we’re in an area where a shark is looking to eat.”