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Unprovoked shark attacks and fatalities increased in 2023

The frequency of unprovoked shark attacks around the globe saw an increase in 2023, marking a rise in both the number of incidents and fatalities from the previous year. 

The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the University of Florida, a comprehensive database tracking attacks worldwide, reported 69 unprovoked shark encounters for the year. This figure stands above the average of 63 shark attacks noted over the past five years, yet it aligns with the historical trend observed over the long term.

Rise in fatalities 

The year witnessed a notable rise in fatal unprovoked shark attacks, with ten recorded instances, a significant jump from the five fatalities documented in the prior year. Australia was particularly affected, where a large portion of these tragic events took place. 

Despite accounting for only 22% of global attacks, Australia was the location for 40% of the fatal incidents. Additionally, the United States, the Bahamas, Egypt, Mexico, and New Caledonia each reported fatal attacks. 

Widespread encounters 

Non-fatal encounters were recorded in various locations, including Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, New Zealand, Seychelles, Turks and Caicos, Ecuador (specifically in The Galápagos Islands), and South Africa.

“This is within the range of the normal number of bites, though the fatalities are a bit unnerving this year,” said Gavin Naylor, who heads the Florida Museum of Natural History’s shark research program.

Unprovoked attacks 

In the United States alone, there were 36 unprovoked shark attacks, making up over half of the worldwide incidents. Among these, one fatal attack occurred in California and another in Hawaii. Consistently, Florida reported the highest number of shark encounters, with 16 documented cases.

The ISAF’s annual report primarily focuses on unprovoked attacks, defined as incidents where a shark bites a human in its natural habitat without provocation. This distinction is crucial for understanding the inherent behavior of these marine predators.

“We’re biologists, and we want to understand the natural behavior of the animals – not the unnatural behavior,” explained Naylor.

Additionally, the ISAF recorded 22 provoked attacks within the same period, with spearfishing emerging as the most frequent activity during these encounters.

Significant risk for surfers

The report highlighted a significant risk for surfers and those in Australia, noting three fatalities in 2023 at the Eyre Peninsula, a renowned surfing destination in Southern Australia known for its seal colonies and high concentration of white sharks.

“If a white shark is going after a seal and the seal knows it, the white shark hasn’t got a chance,” Naylor said. “Seals are really agile, so the only ones that get caught are the ones that are goofing off and flopping around on the surface minding their own business. And that’s kind of what a surfer looks like.”

Surfers constituted 42% of global shark bite victims, closely followed by swimmers and waders at 39%. The study also acknowledged the presence of bull sharks in Australian rivers, attributing one early 2023 fatality to this species.

Beach safety 

Joe Miguez, a doctoral student in the Florida Program for Shark Research, emphasized the importance of beach safety, particularly in remote regions lacking established safety measures.

The majority of unprovoked shark attacks are believed to be “test bites,” where sharks mistake humans for their usual prey. Despite the increase in attacks, the overall numbers remain consistent with the decade’s average, underscoring the low probability of such incidents compared to other risks.

ISAF suggests several precautions for reducing the risk of shark bites, including staying close to shore and avoiding swimming at dawn or dusk. Further details and the complete 2023 report are available on the International Shark Attack File’s website.

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