Shark attacks along U.S. coastal waters fell sharply in 2009, according to an annual report released Monday, and the scientist behind the data thinks the reason could have been the weak economy.
"The big story is that the number of attacks in the United States dropped dramatically from 41 in 2008 to 28 in 2009," George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, said in a statement. "Considering there were 50 attacks in 2007, we may have a bit of a trend, but only time will tell."
Florida saw the most attacks among states, as well as the sharpest decline, from 32 in both 2007 and 2008 to 19 in 2009.
"Florida’s population hasn’t gone down," Burgess said, "so I suppose the economy could have had an effect on how many times people can afford to put gas in their cars and go to the beach.”
Kite surfer killed in Feb.
The death of a kite surfer last month at a beach in Stuart, Fla., led to worries about fatal attacks, but Burgess was quick to lay out the probabilities.
"Internationally, we've been averaging four fatalities per year, despite the fact that there are billions and billions of human hours spent in the sea every year," Burgess said at the time. "Your chances of dying in the mouth of a shark are close to infinitesimal."
Most shark attacks are minor, he added, "the equivalent of a dog bite."
Burgess did note that February was a month when typically attacks in Florida were fewer because not as many people are in the water.
He said sharks were lining "up in South Florida getting ready to move north" as temperatures begin to warm.
"The sharks gradually move their way northward and disperse," Burgess said. "The message to take home is this is a rare and unusual event. It should put the antennae up for people, in terms of, 'Yeah, we need to be careful when we enter the sea, but we need to do that every time because we're never guaranteed safety 100 percent of the time when we enter a wild world.'"
After Florida, California saw 4 attacks, Hawaii 3 and Texas and Georgia one each.
Worldwide, the numbers were stable: 61 attacks last year, compared to 60 in 2008.
"More than half the attacks — 33 out of 61 — were surfers and this continues a trend that we’ve been seeing for quite awhile," Burgess said.
Swimmers were the second largest group of victims (10). The rest involved scuba diving, swimming, paddle boarding, body surfing, boogie boarding, kite surfing, snorkeling, spear fishing, wading, floating and entering the water.
Five of the attacks last year were fatal: Four in South Africa, where white sharks are common in the cold waters, and one in New Caledonia in the South Pacific.
Three of the victims were surfing, Burgess said, another paddle boarding and the fifth was body surfing.
The United States led the world with 28 attacks, followed by Australia (20), and South Africa (6). There were two attacks in Egypt and one each in Ecuador, Indonesia, Mozambique, New Caledonia and Viet Nam.
Different story by decades
Burgess noted that the bigger picture is told by attack data over decades. and that 2000 to 2010 saw an unprecedented rise in attacks.
"As scientists we don’t get so excited about individual years and tend to look at things in terms of decades," he said. "The first decade of the 21st century continues a 100-year trend of each decade having more attacks than the previous one, the result of increases in human population and the amount of time spent in recreational activity."
Fatality rates, on the other hand, have declined and the first decade of this century saw a record low.
At the beginning of the 20th century, 60 percent of all shark attacks were fatal, compared with only 7 percent between 2000 and 2010, Burgess said.
"The number of people who died relative to the number of attacks was so high at the beginning of the 20th century in large part because of poor at-the-scene care, no lifeguards and obviously a much more rudimentary ability of medical science to save severe trauma victims," he said.