Shark Attacks Blamed on Increased Human Activity

Preventing Attacks

Three separate shark attacks in Florida waters in the past week have swimmers edgy. Shark expert George Burgess tells Jennifer Ludden there are more attacks than there used to be because there are more people in the water.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

There's been another shark attack in Florida, the third in a week. Yesterday a 19-year-old Austrian tourist was bitten while standing in chest-deep water near Boca Grand. That's on the west coast of the state, several hundred miles from the panhandle, where the other two attacks occurred. The young Austrian is reported to be in good condition. A 14-year-old girl was killed in an attack a week ago. A 16-year-old boy lost his leg in an attack Monday. Joining me now is shark expert George Burgess of the University of Florida.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. GEORGE BURGESS (Shark Expert, University of Florida): Good to be with you.

LUDDEN: Are shark attacks on the rise?

Mr. BURGESS: They are on the rise and they've been on the rise for each decade of the last century. This is a--reflects, of course, increases in populations of humans and associated interests in aquatic recreation.

LUDDEN: So if part of the equation is more and more people, is it that there may be more attacks, but one individual's chances of being attacked have not actually increased?

Mr. BURGESS: No, they have not increased. And in fact, they probably actually have declined. The hard part for getting a rate of attack is to know how many hours are spent in the water each year by humans. And that's not something we're able to gather, datawise. But that said, when you consider there are literally millions of people each year going into Florida, you're talking about billions of person hours in the water each year to get 25 or 30 attacks. So your chances as an individual of being attacked are one in 11.--I think--9 million of being attacked by a shark and zero chance in 264 million of dying.

LUDDEN: Hm. So what kind of public safety measures are in place?

Mr. BURGESS: In certain areas there are, of course, lifeguards. And the lifeguards are responsible for taking people out of the water when they see sharks. But in other areas there are--there is no lifeguards and no particular measures.

LUDDEN: Is this something that's sort of not caught up with the times yet if attacks are on the rise? Are states and governments just not where they should be?

Mr. BURGESS: I think you're right. I think what's happened, in particular, on the panhandle region of Florida is this is an area that was used at a much lower level than the east coast of Florida, which traditionally brought people to Daytona Beach and Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale and so forth. This sort of sleepy coast of the northern Gulf is now turning into a tourist Mecca. And with the increase in utilization, that area's going to have to start doing the same sort of things that the East Coast has done.

LUDDEN: Such as?

Mr. BURGESS: Having lifeguards on all the beaches, signage to indicate where sharks are and how to avoid those sort of situations. Basically, putting out commonsense advice.

LUDDEN: For example, I've read that people are told not to wear bright, glittery jewelry or contrasting colors. What's the logic there?

Mr. BURGESS: The light shining off of jewelry approximates that of the glint of light off the scales of fishes and, of course, fishes are the major prey item of sharks.

LUDDEN: Some countries have taken far more aggressive steps. I mean, South Africa and Australia, apparently, have very large shark nets to prevent attacks. And they've worked, by all accounts. I mean, why not try something like that?

Mr. BURGESS: They certainly do work. They kill attacks and that's how shark attacks are prevented there. The problem is, is they're decimating the shark populations and they kill things such as sea turtles and dolphins and sea birds and other fishes which also are caught in the nets. So that kind of activity is more or less frowned upon now in the environmental community, and in both of those areas that type of activity is gradually disappearing.

LUDDEN: So what other measures would you suggest that state authorities could do?

Mr. BURGESS: I think education's the main thing we need to do. We need to encourage our visitors to Florida, in particular, to understand better what the threats are and where your opportunities to meet sharks are to be found. And, certainly, the state of Florida needs to work a lot harder at doing that through signage, through pamphlets and, of course, by having lifeguards on all beaches.

Here's the gig on the sharks. The reality is, when one looks at the potential danger associated with aquatic recreation, virtually every other cause of injury or death is higher than sharks. But sharks are a charismatic animal and every shark incident becomes a headline story in the media.

LUDDEN: George Burgess is director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida. Thanks so much.

Mr. BURGESS: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: For more information about sharks and how to protect yourself in the water, go to our Web site: npr.org.

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