The number of unprovoked shark attacks in oceans around the world was at a 10-year low during 2022, with a total of 57. This number is on a par with the attacks recorded during 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic kept tourists and locals off beaches and out of coastal waters. According to the latest annual report of the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File (ISAF), most of the 2022 attacks occurred in the United States and Australia. Of these, five attacks were fatal, down from nine deaths in 2021 and 10 the year before.
The ISAF is the world’s only scientifically documented, comprehensive database of all known shark attacks. It was initiated in 1958 and is housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Currently, the list documents 6,800 shark attack cases during the period from the early 1500s to the present. This annual report focuses particularly on unprovoked shark attacks, defined as “incidents in which a bite on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark.”
According to the latest statistics, there have been an average of 74 unprovoked bites per year since 2013. Therefore, the bites recorded during 2022 mark a significant decrease. According to scientists, this overall reduction in the number of last year’s bites may reflect the documented global decline of shark populations.
“Generally speaking, the number of sharks in the world’s oceans has decreased, which may have contributed to recent lulls” said Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Florida Program for Shark Research. “It’s likely that fatalities are down because some areas have recently implemented rigorous beach safety protocols, especially in Australia.”
Analysis of the geographic distribution of shark attacks in the 2022 Annual Report shows that the U.S. recorded the highest number of shark bites, and that Florida, in particular, had more bites than anywhere else on Earth. However, none of Florida’s 16 unprovoked bites was fatal, but two – likely from bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) – required medical treatment resulting in amputations. Only one of the unprovoked shark attacks in U.S. waters resulted in a fatality, which occurred late in the year when a snorkeler went missing along Keawakapu Beach in Maui, Hawaii.
In contrast, Australia had nine confirmed unprovoked bites, and single bites occurred in New Zealand, Thailand and Brazil. Two fatal attacks occurred on the same day in Egypt’s Red Sea, where shark encounters are considered rare. South Africa, which averages a few bites a year, had two unprovoked attacks in 2022, both of which were fatal and likely caused by great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias).
Although there were fewer bites in the U.S. last year, there were spikes in certain hotspot regions that have caused concern from residents and government officials in these areas. For example, New York had a record eight bites in 2022, compared with a total of only 12 reported unprovoked bites in the State before this time.
In 2016, researchers discovered that juvenile sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus) had taken up residence in Great South Bay, between Long Island and Fire Island. The sharks continue to use the sheltered bay as a nursery, where they’re better protected from predation than they’d otherwise be in the open ocean. According to Naylor, the majority of bites in Long Island were likely from sand tiger sharks that were drawn into the surf zone by an influx of baitfish.
“The Gulf Stream’s eddies ebb and flow each year. Sometimes they can come very close to shore, bringing nutrients and fish with them. The juvenile sand tigers will follow the fish, which in some cases leads to an uptick in encounters with people,” he said. “But local perceptions of shark bites rarely map to global statistics. If you zoom out, these eddies unpredictably break off from oceanic currents all over the world in haphazard ways.”
For as long as records have been kept, there have been no reported fatalities from sand tiger attacks, but juveniles have often been implicated in non-lethal bites.
“Juveniles tend to be more experimental and will try things that an adult shark wouldn’t,” Naylor said. “If fish are especially dense where people are swimming and visibility is poor, then it is more likely that young sharks, which lack the experience of older animals, will mistake a swimmer’s foot for their intended prey.”
Another noteworthy record in the 2022 Annual Report comes from the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt. On January 8, 2022, two attacks occurred less than a mile from each other and both were fatal. It is possible that the attacks were perpetrated by the same individual shark, most likely considered to be a tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier).
Shark attacks are relatively rare in the Red Sea, but when they do occur, they’re often fatal, Naylor said. This is due primarily to the unique topography of the region. The Red Sea began forming roughly 50 million years ago as the tectonic plates underlying Africa and Arabia began pulling apart, creating a steep gorge between them.
“It’s a very unusual marine system because the seafloor drops so precipitously, as much as 1,000 feet in 100 yards in some places,” noted Naylor.
In regions like eastern North America, where the continental shelf slopes gradually, large pelagic sharks often forage far from the coast. In the Red Sea, however, they’re mere meters from the shore, Naylor explained. “Open oceans are often pretty bleak, and the pelagic sharks that live in them make their living by opportunism. Whatever potential food source they find, they’ll sample.”
The authors of the report emphasize that the chances of being bitten by a shark remain incredibly low. According to the World Health Organization, drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death worldwide, and coastal features like rip tides and strong currents pose a greater risk to beachgoers than do sharks.
Despite this, the ISAF provides recommendations for reducing the risk of a shark bite for those who swim in the oceans. These include removing shiny jewelry before entering the water, not swimming at dawn or dusk, and avoiding areas where there are active fishermen or shoals of fish. For more resources, including the full 2022 report, you can visit the International Shark Attack File’s website.
By Alison Bosman, Earth.com Staff Writer
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