MIAMI – Looks like it’s safe to get back in the water.
Shark attacks, still rare despite movie plot lines and one fatal attack this year off Cape Cod, declined dramatically worldwide in 2018 and plummeted by nearly half in Florida waters, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File.
The steep drop, a statistical anomaly, suggests swimmers may be getting better at heeding warnings, research director Gavin Naylor said.
He said it prompts “the question of whether we’re seeing fewer bites because there are fewer sharks — that would be the ‘glass half-empty’ interpretation. Or it could be that the general public is heeding the advice of beach safety officials.”
Florida usually tops the chart in unprovoked attacks across the United States, with Volusia County annually crowned the shark attack capital of the world. But last year, the number in the state fell by nearly half, from 31 to 16. Naylor said that’s likely linked to a decline in blacktip sharks, the species usually linked to attacks in state waters.
“Blacktips used to amass in huge numbers along the coast of Florida,” he said, but numbers have shrunk over the past two to three years. “The fact that numbers of that particular species appear to be diminishing would be consistent with the number of bites being a little lower than in past years,” he said.
Researchers with the conservation group Osearch said two great white sharks that they tagged last year off South Carolina were tracked swimming off Key West earlier this month.
The number of attacks worldwide dropped from 88 to 66, with four fatal attacks, down from an annual average of six. The U.S. continues to rank first worldwide, even as the number of attacks fell from 53 to 32, the study found.
Despite last year’s decline, Naylor said globally the number of bites is gradually rising as populations swell and the number of people in the water increases. Fatal attacks, however, have been dropping for decades as beach officials get faster and better at responding, he said.
Naylor singled out one hot spot to watch: Cape Cod, where great white sharks attacked swimmers twice, including the first fatality in 82 years. Naylor said rebounding seal populations protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act are drawing greater numbers of the massive predators.
“An increase in sharks is a symptom of restoring healthy oceans,” he said. “What the public needs to do is become informed about these animals, understand their behavior patterns and listen to the guidelines issued by beach safety patrols.”
The International Shark Attack File, started in 1958, is the only ongoing, verified record of shark bites worldwide, with more 6,200 attacks dating back to the 1500s. The research program releases an annual report to document shark attack trends.