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Summer of the Shark: Are More Great Whites a Good Thing?

Image: A shark swims near Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California.

A shark swims near Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California. KIKE CALVO / AP file

Is this the summer of the shark — or is it just another case of great white hype?

A swimmer who came face to face with a great white shark this weekend told NBC News that he's lucky to be alive. But, really, he's unlucky to have been attacked by a shark in the first place. Steve Robles, 50, was swimming in Southern California, where shark attacks are relatively rare.

"Apparently the shark was very agitated, and I happened to be coming at that exact moment,'' Robles said Monday. "I came very close to dying."

In 2013, the International Shark Attack File, maintained at the University of Florida, recorded 125 incidents around the globe, including 72 "unprovoked attacks" by sharks on humans. That was down from a record 81 unprovoked attacks the year before. Forty-seven of the 2013 attacks occurred in U.S. waters, down from the 2012 record of 54.

So far this year there have been 16 shark attacks in the U.S., none fatal — but beach season is just beginning.

2:17

How much should you worry? Not much, say shark experts. In fact, you may want to celebrate. Two new studies point to a rise in great white numbers on both U.S. coasts, after the species' population had been plummeting for decades. And the benefits of a healthy shark population far outweigh the risks.

"Sharks are the lions of the ocean. ... If we lose them, then the ocean falls out of balance. You end up with a dead ocean like the Sea of Cortez," said Chris Fischer, founder, chairman and expedition leader of Ocearch. Since fall 2008, Ocearch, a nonprofit organization, has been on a mission to tag and study as many great whites as possible, and it runs a popular shark-tracker website, where you can follow scores of tagged sharks with names like Esperanza and Leon III.

"On the East Coast, there's been greater than a 40 percent increase since the 1980s," said George Burgess, who was involved in both of the studies as director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at University of Florida. "And on the West Coast, I don't have a percentage, but I can tell you the population's at about 2,400 shark, which is reasonably high, and the number of young sharks in California [is] coming up."

He credited the surge in shark numbers to better fishery management and heightened awareness, as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was enacted in 1972 and has slowly been raising seal and sea lion population measures.

"Sharks are the lions of the ocean. ... If we lose them, then the ocean falls out of balance."

Other measures taken to help the shark population thrive decades ago are also just starting to bear fruit.

"Sharks are animals that we say are living in the slow lane," Burgess told NBC News on Monday. "They are long-lived animals that grow slowly and reach sexual maturity at a larger size and age. They also have very few young, and as a result when populations are down they usually are really down. It takes decades rather than years to recover."

Burgess blamed the drop in the great white shark's population in the first place on commercial fishing (especially for Asian markets), sport fishing and the movies.

And "in part because of the movie 'Jaws' — in fact in large part because of that," said Burgess. "Every red-blooded American guy on the East Coast wanted to go ahead and catch a shark. There was this collective testosterone rush on the East Coast."

Much of the commercial fishing of sharks sends meat to markets where shark-fin soup is a expensive delicacy.

"Two hundred and fifty thousand sharks are being killed a day for a bowl of soup in Asia," said Fischer.

A study in 2013 by Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, estimated that 100 million sharks are killed every year around the world.

5:05

So even with population numbers floating higher, sharks really have more to fear from humans than the other way around.

"If you're concerned about sharks and you're going to the beach to go swimming, the biggest piece of advice I can give you is for your safety is to wear your seat belt when you drive down to the beach," said Fischer.

Greg Skomal, a shark science expert with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, echoed that sentiment and said a burgeoning shark population likely won't lead to a surge in attacks.

"We are the top predators, and among our prey are the sharks, and anyone who looks at the statistics will see we kill far more sharks than vice versa," said Skomal, who has just began a project to come up with a definitive count of great whites on the East Coast. "Just because you hear reports of more sharks around doesn't mean we'll be dealing with epidemic levels of shark attack."

"I think it's more of the Summer of Awareness than the Summer of the Shark," said Fischer. "And I think that will just help the sharks. We need to love on the sharks like we love on the whales."