Here’s why sharks attacks are down, but peaked in 2015

Posted at 3:31 PM, Sep 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-02 15:34:21-04

Discovery Channel's Shark Week

If the “Jaws” theme is stuck in your head as you head to the beach for the last gasp of summer, stop worrying.

Yes, 2015 set a record for shark attacks, but scientists say this year, despite predictions, shark attacks are down.

Besides, you are more likely to be killed by a cow than a shark. That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the gold standard of health data. You really don’t have to turn down that invitation to the Hamptons merely because scientists found a new great white shark nursery along the Long Island coast last month.

It turns out sharks are just not that into you. At least not this year.

Why shark attack numbers are down overall but have reached records in recent years is complicated, scientists say, especially since they still have limited knowledge of what makes the creatures act the way they do, despite a much-hyped week devoted to them on the Discovery Channel.

George Burgess has several educated guesses, and he’s certainly qualified to make them, having studied sharks’ mysterious ways for more than four decades.

Burgess — who has a shark named after him and who is keeper of the international shark attack file at the Florida Program for Shark Research — works in the state with the most shark-human encounters.

He counts 59 shark attacks last year in US waters, with one death in Hawaii. Globally, there were 98 unprovoked attacks, with six deaths. By comparison, as of the end of August, there have been 24 attacks this year around the world. Although summer isn’t over here, and is just starting in the Southern Hemisphere, Burgess thinks it is highly unlikely that we will set another record in 2016.

Last year’s global record (the previous high was 88 in 2000) came in part because of El Niño, he thinks.

“Warmer water and air temperatures mean the animals that migrate northward arrive a little earlier and stay a little later,” Burgess said. “As they were moving up the coastline of the East Coast, they found more humans in the water, because as the air temperature gets warmer on land, more people go to the beach to cool off.

“More humans in the water, a longer shark season, the number of attacks tends to rise,” he said.

With the recovery of the economy, more people can afford beach vacations, and more coastal land has been developed, also raising the chances of a human-shark encounter. But keep in mind that the 59 attacks were among the 88 million Americans (PDF) who say they swim in “natural” waters, including oceans. They really are rare.

But if you don’t like any attacks at all, you could be angry at the government.

Sharks were dramatically overfished in the 1980s and ’90s and in many cases still are, but when the US government took notice, it put protections in place to save the species, starting in 2000. The animal then started to recover in American waters.

“They’re coming back slowly, and now people are seeing more, and there is going to be more interaction, and more people will be bitten,” said Christopher Lowe, who has worked with sharks for the past 30 years and runs the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach.

Although many people are shark-averse, he hopes the animals’ numbers come back even further. “This is still not your grandfather’s ocean,” he said.

We are bigger threat to sharks than they are to us. By some estimates (PDF), more than 100 million sharks are killed each year, threatening their survival.

And sharks are important to keep the rest of the ocean in balance. They eat jellyfish, which you are much more likely to encounter than a shark, and which can sting you and even kill you.

Still, if you’re the kind of person who doubts a study that said it’s only the scary background music that makes sharks seem scary (onscreen) and you still worry about attacks, these experts are used to giving people advice on how to avoid becoming bait.

Tips for reducing your chances of being attacked by a shark

First and foremost: Don’t act like a seal.

Sharks really like to eat seals. Scientists in Massachusetts, who have seen an increase in the number of seals along Cape Cod, suggest you don’t swim near them. Don’t act like one, either. Try not to splash around too much.

Stay away from big dropoffs or sandbars where sharks like to hang out. Don’t wander too far from shore. Don’t swim alone or at dawn, dusk or dark. And if you have a bleeding wound, wait until it dries, as sharks do smell blood in the water and may be tempted to investigate the source.

Sharks also see contrasting colors really well. They like bright yellows and oranges, and they are really into bling. Try not to wear your shiny jewelry in the water, as it may look like fish scales.

And although they haven’t all been tagged, if you want to know where the sharks hang out, you may want to check out OCEARCH’s shark finder app and tracking map.

Last month, it tagged several great white babies, a first for Long Island, and you can track them as they move around the coast. You can even follow them on Twitter. Just don’t get nervous when Mary Lee the shark starts following you on social media or maybe even at the beach, as typically sharks do prefer other prey.

And fortunately, there are plenty other fish in the sea.