15 February 2006

Shark attacks fall as humans fight back

Shark attacks dropped in 2005 because people are fighting back more often when threatened and the ranks of ocean predators are thinning, a University of Florida report said on Monday.

Worldwide there were 58 shark attacks in 2005, down from 65 a year earlier, and fatalities fell to four from seven, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File housed at the university's Florida Museum of Natural History.

Attacks have been on the decline for five years, since reaching a record high of 78, 11 of them fatal, in 2000, Burgess said in the center's annual tally of shark attacks reported by scientists around the world. The center has kept records since 1958.

Human-shark encounters are dropping partly because there are fewer sharks, a decline caused by overfishing of the species, which generally is slow to reproduce, Burgess said.

Humans are also taking greater care to avoid areas where sharks gather and fighting back when they get bitten, Burgess said. A surfer bitten by a great white shark off the Oregon coast on December 24 drove it away with a punch to the nose, he said.

"If you're being approached by a shark, you certainly want to act aggressively toward the animal. They're a predator, they respect size and power," Burgess said.

"If you can smack them on the nose, certainly do so ... sharks seem to respect pops on the nose."

Those already in the jaws of a shark should "claw at the eyes and the gills to impress the animal that you're not going to go down easily," he advised.

Surfers were the most frequent victims last year, with 29 incidents, followed by swimmers and waders, 20, and divers, four.

Despite the worldwide decline, the number of attacks in the United States rose slightly, to 38 last year from 30 a year earlier and well below the recorded high of 52 in 2000.

Most U.S. shark attacks occur in Florida. The state had 18 shark attacks last year, compared with 12 in 2004, a year in which a spate of hurricanes kept people out of the water. The record was 37 in 2000.

After the United States, Australia was the most likely spot for an unfriendly encounter with a shark. Burgess tracked 10 attacks in Australia, four in South Africa and one each in the Bahamas, St. Martin, Mexico, Fiji, Vanuatu and South Korea.

Australia has seen a relatively high number of shark attacks in the last two years, but the per capita rate of shark attacks has not risen over the past century, Burgess said. The increase coincides with a booming human population and Australia's growing attraction to tourists in recent decades, he said.

Of the four fatalities in 2005, two were in Australia, one in the Pacific island of Vanuatu and one in the United States.

The U.S. attack occurred June 25 along Florida's Gulf Coast, when a 14-year-old boy was attacked by a bull shark while swimming off Sandestin. It was the first death from a shark attack in four years in Florida.

Source: Reuters


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