There have already been 25 shark attacks this year, the most recent one reported over the weekend, again off the coast of the North Carolina's Outer Banks (this is the eighth in the state so far this year). This is already a significant percentage of the 70 to 100 reported worldwide each year, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History, and may be part of a trend. More than 40 shark sightings were reported in 2013 and 2014 in the U.S., but prior to 2004, sightings hovered around two per year. But why?
It may start with the fact that more of us are swimming in the ocean. "More people are using the ocean now for recreation than ever before, so there is no doubt that we're putting more people in the water," says Chris Lowe, professor in the Department of Biological Studies and at the CSULB Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach. "And while there isn't a lot of good scientific evidence for this yet, I think that some shark populations are increasing due to better fisheries management and improved water quality," he says. "You put more people in the water and add more sharks to coastal areas, you will have more shark-human related interactions."
To add to this, weather and ocean patterns including the current El Nino-like conditions in the Pacific are altering shark migrations, and heightening shark numbers where people swim. The rate at which these interactions may be increasing is not the same as the rate of more humans going in the water or there being more sharks around. For Lowe, this suggests that sharks are clearly not out to bite humans — it just shows we don't really understand why many of these incidents occur and therefore can't really explain these patterns yet. Although the numbers are higher than in the past, he says they still don't reflect the actual potential for danger. "The numbers of these incidents are so low that they really should pose little concern to beachgoers and water enthusiasts," says Lowe. "Think about it: You have a so much greater likelihood of being killed in a fatal car accident driving to the beach than you ever would from encountering a shark while in the water."
In fact, your chances of getting struck by lightning or attacked by an alligator are greater than your chances of getting tangled up in a shark attack. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't take certain precautionary measures, just as you should with any danger, especially as shark numbers continue to increase. One challenge is that we've had two generations of Americans who aren't use to sharing the ocean with large marine predators, due to systematic endangerment of many of those animals due to overfishing, habitat loss, and ecosystem degradation. But better water quality, fisheries management, and protection of marine mammals — like sharks and other top predators — has allowed many of their populations to recover, so it's time to get used to it, Lowe says. "It's taken decades for this to occur, and we can finally see it, so we have to get use to sharing their ocean with them again. Be beach smart, know about the marine life and water hazards you may encounter at any beach you visit. It's a wild place and we're just guests."
How to Avoid Getting Bit
1. Stay in groups. There does seem to be some evidence of safety in numbers, and it appears that large predatory sharks may avoid populated beaches.
2. Take care in murky water. Some shark bites are thought to be related to "mistaken identity," and it's possible that in murky conditions they can't see as well and may take a crack at a moving hand or foot thinking it's a school of bait.
3. Avoid dusk and dawn. While there's no direct evidence that sharks feed more at dusk and dawn, we do know they are more active then and possibly looking for food. Therefore, it's probably not a good idea to be out in the water then, but there are also a lot fewer people who go in the water.
4. Spot the shark. If you see a shark, keep your eyes on it. You want the shark to know that you know that its there. If the shark approaches you and is acting aggressive, keep your eyes on it and back away. It's most prudent to get out of the water then if you can.