Image: Shark attack victim
Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP file
Bruce Grimes was one of 59 people attacked by sharks last year. He was bitten by a shark on May 24 in Ixtapa, Mexico.
updated 2/19/2009 2:53:01 PM ET 2009-02-19T19:53:01

Shark attacks dipped to the lowest level in five years in 2008, a change that might have happened because the ailing economy kept cash-strapped vacationers away from beaches, a leading shark expert said Thursday.

There were 59 shark attacks around the world last year, compared to 71 in 2007, said George Burgess, an ichthyologist and director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History.

"I can't help but think that contributing to the reduction may have been the reticence of some people to take holidays and go to the beach for economic reasons," Burgess said in a news release.

Burgess said he expects the economy to help cause another decline in attacks in 2009, but over the long term, he expects a gradual increase from one decade to the next.

While the economy is a possible explanation, shark populations also have declined due to commercial fishing. In some areas, the number of sharks is down to 10 percent of the original populations.

"We've got a lot less sharks than in the past," Burgess said.

There were four fatal attacks in 2008, which is about average, Burgess said. Only one death was reported in 2007, a two-decade low. Two of the deaths were in Mexico, one was in Australia and one was in the United States.

The number of shark attacks in the United States dropped from 50 in 2007 to 41 last year, Burgess said. Of those, 32 were in Florida, the same as the previous year, followed by North Carolina and South Carolina with three each; Hawaii with two and California with one. Surfers accounted for 57 percent of the attacks, followed by 36 percent for swimmers and waders and 8 percent for divers, Burgess said.

Volusia County, Fla., continued its dubious distinction of the world's shark bite capital with 22 attacks, its highest yearly total since 2001. Most of them were in the surf haven of New Smyrna Beach on the central Atlantic coast.

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