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Shark attacks worldwide increase slightly

For the first time in more than a decade, the United States claimed 53 shark attacks during a single year, according to a new summary by the International Shark Attack File. The ISAF just released numbers stating there were 80 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks on humans worldwide in 2012. Most of those encounters happened in the United States.

The 2012 yearly total of 80 attacks is higher than last year's 78, but in 2012 fewer people died than in 2011. There were seven fatalities due to shark attacks last year and 13 in 2011.

The ISAF said the growth in attacks doesn't mean that there is an increase in the rate of shark attacks, just an increase in the the amount of time people spend in the water. Florida had the highest number of shark attacks compared to other states in the United States with 26.

Read the ISAF 2012 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary below

The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) investigated 118 alleged incidents of shark-human interaction occurring worldwide in 2012. Upon review, 80 of these incidents represented confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attack on humans. "Unprovoked attacks" are defined as incidents where an attack on a live human by a shark occurs in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark. Incidents involving sharks and divers in public aquaria or research holding-pens, shark-inflicted scavenge damage to already dead humans (most often drowning victims), attacks on boats, and provoked incidents occurring in or out of the water are not considered unprovoked attacks.

"Provoked attacks" usually occur when a human initiates physical contact with a shark, e.g. a diver bitten after grabbing a shark, a fisher bitten while removing a shark from a net, attacks on spearfishers and those feeding sharks, etc. The 38 incidents not accorded unprovoked status in 2012 included 16 provoked attacks, eight shark-boat interactions (motorized and non-motorized vessels), five incidents regarded as not involving a shark ("doubtful"), one "air-sea disaster," three "scavenge" incidents involving post-mortem bites, and five cases in which available evidence was insufficient to determine if an unprovoked shark attack occurred.

The 2012 yearly total of 80 unprovoked attacks was slightly higher than the 78 unprovoked attacks recorded in 2011 but on-par with the 2010 total of 82. In general, the number of worldwide unprovoked shark attacks has grown at a steady pace since 1900, with each decade having more attacks than the previous. The numerical growth in shark interactions does not necessarily mean that there is an increase in the rate of shark attacks; rather, it most likely reflects the ever-increasing amount of time spent in the sea by humans, which increases the opportunities for interaction between the two affected parties.

The number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year is directly correlated with the amount of time humans spend in the sea. As world population continues its upsurge and interest in aquatic recreation concurrently rises, we realistically should expect increases in the number of shark attacks and other aquatic recreation-related injuries. If shark populations remain the same or increase in size, one might predict that there should be more attacks each year than in the previous year because more people are in the water.

Shark populations, by contrast, actually are declining or holding at greatly reduced levels in many areas of the world as a result of over-fishing and habitat loss, theoretically reducing the opportunity for these shark-human interactions. However, year-to-year variability in local economic, social, meteorological and oceanographic conditions also significantly influences the local abundance of sharks and humans in the water and, therefore, the odds of encountering one another. As a result, short-term trends in the number of shark bites - up or down - must be viewed with caution. Thus, the ISAF prefers to view trends over longer periods of time (e.g., by decade) rather than trying to assign too much significance to often high year-to-year variability.

In addition to increases in the number of hours spent in the water by humans, the ISAF's efficiency in discovering and investigating attacks has improved greatly over the past 25 years, leading to further increases in the number of recorded interactions. Transfer of the ISAF to the Florida Museum of Natural History in 1988 resulted in greatly expanding international coverage of attack incidents and a consequent jump in the number of documented attacks.

In the early 1990s the ISAF developed important cooperative relationships with many Florida beach safety organizations and medical facilities, leading to increased documentation of attacks from a region that is a world leader in aquatic recreation. Fundamental advances in electronic communication (Internet search engines, email, mobile phones, texting, social media), a greatly expanded network of global ISAF scientific observers, and a rise in interest in sharks throughout the world, spawned in part by increased media attention given to sharks, have promoted more complete documentation of shark-human incidents in recent years.

The ISAF web pages, which include electronic copies of the Attack Questionnaire in four languages as well as a plethora of statistics and educational material about sharks, comprises the most highly accessed shark website on the Internet. Our strong web presence, including a Facebook page, regularly results in the receipt of unsolicited documentation of shark attacks. Many of these attacks likely would have been missed in the past because they occurred in communication-poor locales or areas lacking ISAF representatives.

Following long-term trends, North American waters had the most (52.5%: 42 attacks) unprovoked bites in 2012. The total of 53 attacks in the United States (including 11 in non-North American Hawaii and Puerto Rico) was the highest U.S. yearly total since 53 attacks were recorded in 2000. The 2012 total lies in stark contrast with the 31 recorded in 2011, the lowest U.S. total since 2009 (29). Such marked year-to-year jumps and drops in shark-human interactions - be they regional or international in scope - are not unusual as a plethora of oceanographic, meteorological, economic and human social variables affect the opportunity for humans and sharks to cross paths in a given year. That is why ISAF scientists do not get too excited about the significance of yearly totals and prefer to view decade-long periods as more representative of trends.

Elsewhere, attacks occurred in Australia (14), South Africa (4), and Reunion (3), with single incidents reported from The Canary Islands, Indonesia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Tonga. Australia's 14 attacks compares favorably with its average of 12 attacks per year over the past ten years (2002-2011) and the two fatalities also were in line with its 1.4 yearly average over the same time period.

As is often the case in situations where high-profile incidents or controversies occur - in this instance in Western Australia where five shark attacks and an ill-founded sanctioned culling hunt for endangered white sharks ensued - the bottom line is often lost in the resultant media "feeding frenzy," viz. that Australia had a pretty average year for shark bites. Five attacks also occurred in New South Wales and single incidents were recorded in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. South Africa, which also has had its share of headline years in the recent past, also had a relatively average contact year, its four attacks equal to its past ten-year average of four attacks.

However, its three fatalities were higher than its recent yearly average of 1.0 per year. To put those totals in context, within the past ten years South Africa has had years with as many as eight attacks (2010) and four fatalities (2009) but also a year (2006) having no attacks whatsoever, again underscoring the volatile nature of the phenomenon both regionally and internationally. Reunion's three 2012 attacks, when piggybacked with four attacks in 2011 - collectively resulting in three mortalities - suggests that this small island state has developed a problematic situation where some changes, likely anthropogenic in origin, have contributed to a higher-than-usual number of highly deleterious shark-human interactions.

As has been the norm for decades, Florida again had most (49%) of the unprovoked attacks in the United States. The total of 26 Florida bites was similar to the 2001-2010 decade's yearly average of 23. Additional U.S. attacks were recorded in Hawaii (10), California (5), South Carolina (5), North Carolina (2), and Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Puerto Rico (one each). Within Florida, Brevard (8) and Volusia (7) counties had the most incidents. These geographically adjacent counties located on the central east coast have collectively recorded more than half (54%: 360 of 663 cases) of Florida's historic shark-human interactions.

This is attributable to very high aquatic recreational utilization of their attractive beaches and waters by both Florida residents and tourists, especially surfers, and the rich nature of Florida's marine fauna. Other Florida counties having attacks in 2012 were Martin (4), Duval and Palm Beach (2 each), and Indian River, Miami-Dade, and St. Johns (1 each). Hawaii's ten attacks were its highest total since seven in 2007 and higher than its ten-year annual average of four, with most incidents occurring on Maui (5) and Kauai (3). Single attacks were reported from Lanai and Oahu. Congruent with the common theme of high variability, Hawaii had a low total of one attack in 2008, the year following the high of seven, so 2012's high total does not necessarily signal an upward trend.

Seven fatalities resulted from unprovoked attacks in 2012, down from the 2011 total of 13 but above the 2001-2010 yearly average of 4.4. Fatalities were recorded in South Africa (3), Australia (2), California (1) and Reunion (1). The annual fatality rate of 8.8% was less than the 1990's average of 12.5%, but slightly higher than the 7.4% average of the first decade of this century. The trend in fatality rate has been one of constant reduction over the past 11 decades, reflective of advances in beach safety practices and medical treatment, and increased public awareness of avoiding potentially dangerous situations.

The fatality rate in the U.S. was notably lower (1.9%) than that of rest of the world (22.2%), likely reflective of the greater safety and medical capacity in areas of the U.S. where shark attacks historically occur. This highlights the need for increasing efforts to improve beach safety, including educating the public about the risk of sharks, providing well-trained lifeguards, and advancing emergency care and medical capabilities in many areas of the world.

Surfers and others participating in board sports (60% of cases: 48 incidents) were most often involved in these incidents in 2012. Less affected recreational user groups included swimmers/waders (22%) and divers (8%). Surfers have been the most-affected user group in recent years, the probable result of the large amount of time spent by these folks engaged in provocative activity (kicking of feet, splashing of hands, and "wipeouts") in areas frequented by sharks, the surf zone.

Check the Full ISAF 2012 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary

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