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The risk of shark attacks remains low and varies by region

Researchers at Louisiana State University have conducted the first statistical analysis of shark attacks worldwide using data collected over a 55-year period from 1960 to 2015. The experts found that even though the number of shark attacks has increased over time, the risk of shark attacks remains low.

In 2015, there was a spike in the number of shark attacks in North Carolina. Study lead author Stephen Midway, an assistant professor in LSU’s Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, wanted to know if this rate of attack was unusual or if it was normal.

“I was curious what the likelihood of shark attacks is in a certain number of years at different places around the world. While shark attacks are often reported in numbers, we factored in the regional human populations to determine the rate of shark attacks worldwide. I think this information could contribute to a more scientifically grounded discussion about sharks in general and help with the management and conservation of them,” said Professor Midway.

The team investigated specific regions within the United States, Australia, and South Africa that had the highest number of shark attacks. The researchers found that shark attack rates, although extremely low, have doubled over the past 20 years in highly populated regions such as the eastern coast of the U.S. and Southern Australia.

“As development increases along the coast and in beach communities, more residents and tourists frequent these waters. With more people in the water, the chance for a shark attack increases. However, I must stress the fact that not all places across the globe saw an increase. And even in the places where we saw an increase, the chances were still one in several million.”

From 1960 to 2015, there were 1,215 reported shark attacks in the United States, which mostly resulted in minor skin injuries comparable to a dog bite. Over the 55 years, there were 24 fatal attacks.

“Humans have always demonized sharks because they are elusive and live in an environment that’s not native to us – the sea,” said study co-author George Burgess of the University of Florida. “We would like people to know that these shark attack events need to be put into perspective whenever they occur. This study helps us step back and look at the big picture.”

Professor Midway added, “We ought to think of the risk of a shark attack like we would think of the risk of a car accident. For example, we don’t assess our personal risk of getting into a car accident by the national statistics on car accidents year over year. We think about our specific car, the weather, the road conditions and other very local factors.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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