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Shark attacks rose 25 percent last year across the globe

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The number of reported shark attacks last year increased globally but declined in Florida, the shark capital of the world, according to an annual report released Monday by the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File.

Total reported attacks reached 79 in 2010, up 25 percent from 63 a year earlier, the report found. Six of the attacks were fatal, slightly above average for the year. The 79 attacks were the most since 2000 (80).

The year also saw what file director and shark expert George Burgess said was probably "the most unusual shark incident of my career" — five attacks, including one fatality, in the Red Sea off Egypt's resort coast last December.

It was "hugely unusual by shark attack standards," Burgess said in a statement released with the report.

Four of the five attacks, which happened within five days, were attributed to two individual sharks.

What caused the attacks? Burgess believes it was a combination of natural and human factors, including:

  • Higher water temperatures due to an unusually hot summer;
  • Sheep dumped into the water by a cargo ship after they died in transit;
  • Divers feeding reef fishes and even sharks.

Within the United States, Florida saw its fourth straight decline. It still led the U.S. with 13 attacks, but that's much lower than the yearly average of 23 over the past decade.

"Florida had its lowest total since 2004, which was 12," Burgess said. "Maybe it’s a reflection of the downturn in the economy and the number of tourists coming to Florida, or the amount of money native Floridians can spend taking holidays and going to the beach."

Still, the U.S. led the world in shark attacks at 36, an average year by U.S. standards, followed by Australia (14), South Africa (8), Vietnam (6) and Egypt (6).

Other states with attacks were North Carolina (5), California (4), Hawaii (4) and South Carolina (4). There were single attacks in Georgia, Maine, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Surfers, who are more determined than tourists to hit the waves even in a recession, were attacked in slightly more than half of the cases globally, Burgess said. Swimmers and waders were the second-largest group affected at 38 percent.

"The reality is, going into the sea is a wilderness experience," Burgess said. "You’re visiting a foreign environment — it’s not a situation where you’re guaranteed success."

The number of attacks could be cut in half if people just used more common sense, Burgess said, such as avoiding fishing areas and inlets where sharks gather, and leaving the water when a shark is sighted.

Burgess also emphasized that while sharks claim an average of five humans a year, fishing fleets kill somewhere between 30 million to 70 million sharks a year. Some are accidentally caught, others are targeted for their fins, which are used in Asia for high-priced soup.

"The sea is actually very forgiving, certainly from the standpoint of the animal life," Burgess said. "When you look at the big picture, it’s kind of ironic that these animals which are apex predators, the top of the food chain in the sea, are so readily caught."