2019 saw ‘unusually low’ number of shark attacks worldwide
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Shark attacks remained “unusually low” for the second year in a row, possibly reflecting a change in Florida migrations by a species responsible for the most bites, according to an annual report released Tuesday.
There were 64 shark attacks last year, of which two were fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. Although this represents a slight increase from the previous year, it remains 22% lower than the annual average of 82 bites.
Sharks never had much taste for human flesh, as indicated by the frequency with which they decline the opportunity to bite us. Aerial photographs off Florida’s east coast, for example, show thousands of migrating blacktips coming disconcertingly close to beaches but rarely interacting with swimmers.
These sharks are typically responsible for the most attacks, bites that experts say are typically cases of mistaken identity in murky water, in which the shark mistakes a hand or foot for a fish and quickly lets go once it realizes its error.
Gavin Naylor, director of shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, which administers the International Shark Attack File, said the decline in 2019 may reflect changes in blacktip migration patterns.
“We’ve had back-to-back years with unusual decreases in shark attacks, and we know that people aren’t spending less time in the water,” he said. “This suggests sharks aren’t frequenting the same places they have in the past. But it’s too early to say this is the new normal.”
Like birds and humans with permanent homes in New York, blacktip sharks come to South Florida in the winter and head north for the summer.
The number reaching South Florida has declined sharply over the past few years, however, as the ocean’s temperature has warmed, said Stephen Kajiura, a biology professor at Florida Atlantic University who conducts aerial surveys of the migrations.
Last year he counted about 2,500 blacktips in South Florida, down from a peak a few years ago of 12,000.
“The number of sharks has been declining as water temperature has been warming,” he said.
He said it’s possible climate change has reduced the migration, he said, since sharks don’t have to go as far south anymore to find warm enough water. But he said there are a lot of variable and not enough data to draw that conclusion.
“It’s tempting to say it’s climate change,” he said. “But our data only go back 10 years so I’m hesitant to attribute it to climate change because there are other long-term factors.”
Volusia County, as usual, had the most shark bites in Florida, with nine, followed by Duval with five and Brevard with two. There was one bite each in Broward, Martin, Nassau, Palm Beach and St. John’s counties.
The two fatal attacks occurred in the Bahamas and the Indian Ocean island of Réunion.
The toll humans take on sharks remains far higher. Sharks are targeted by commercial fishing boats for their fins, largely for export to Asia, where shark fin soup is a delicacy.
Twenty shark species and their relatives are classified as endangered or threatened by the federal government.
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