Reef shark, © Ed Gullekson

Shark (Fact) Attack

Whether you love them or fear them, sharks get a lot of attention every summer when vacationers hit the beach and shark encounters make the news.

Yet, worldwide only six people died amid 98 shark attacks in 2015—including one U.S. fatality in Hawaii—according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. With the human population surpassing 7 billion, the risk ratio is actually very low. The same is not true for sharks encountering humans. Some 100 million die at our hands every year, the majority for fins used in shark fin soup. Others are victims of bycatch.

It may seem like you hear more about shark attacks in recent years, but the truth is actually the opposite. Researchers point to a spike in ocean recreation and an increase in media exposure, rather than an actual uptick in shark encounters, according to a Stanford study. After all, a shark attack makes the news while a near-fatal bee sting does not. In reviewing data from 1950 to 2013, the Stanford researchers found that despite an increase in shark attack reports in California, individual attack risk has dropped by more than 91 percent.

The researchers also found that ocean-goers are almost 7,000 times more likely to be hospitalized for diving-related decompression sickness, and about 1,800 times more likely to drown than to suffer a shark bite. Scuba divers also have a one in 136 million chance of a shark bite, while surfers have a one in 17 million chance. Just for comparison, your odds of ever being struck by lightning are about one in 12,000.

Shark, ©Ridlon Kiphart

Still, cautions George Burgess, curator of the shark attack file, “As our population continues to rapidly grow and shark populations slowly recover, we’re going to see more interactions.”

But that doesn’t mean we should cull sharks—as Australia did in 2014. Studies show this has no effect on risk of encounters. Further, as top predators, sharks play a vital role in marine ecosystems. For example, research linked a drop in shark numbers to the collapse of a North Carolina bay scallop fishery following a population boom of scallop-eating rays normally controlled by sharks.

Promoting safe use of the ocean is a far better option than killing sharks. After all, the surf is their turf.

Here’s what you can do to stay safe in the water:

  • Avoid swimming near fishing activity and swooping, feeding seabirds. Sharks may be attracted by bait or by discarded fish.
  • Avoid steep drop-offs in the water and areas between sandbars, as sharks favor such spots.
  • Don’t swim alone. Sharks are less likely to approach a group.
  • If you have an open wound, stay out of the water. (This might be good advice regardless!)
  • Avoid provoking sharks when diving, and give them plenty of space. A little less than half of documented shark attacks result from provocation or harassment of sharks.
  • Don’t urinate in the water.
  • Wear dull swimwear and don’t wear jewelry, which can mimic a fish’s scales and make you look like food.

And here’s what you can do to help sharks:

  • Promote shark fin bans in your state. Currently 11 states have banned the shark fin trade, making it illegal to buy, sell, or in some cases even possess shark fins. By cutting down on the demand for shark fins, we can save lives. If your state already has such a ban, thank the people who made it possible! And if it doesn’t, keep an eye out for an alert from us. We’ll be reaching out to our supporters as more and more states introduce legislation to ban the possession of shark fins.
  • Eat sustainable seafood.  Did your seafood cost sharks their lives? Ask questions about the food you purchase, and look for brands or labels that indicate your food was caught sustainably.
  • Spread the truth about sharks. Thanks in no small part to Hollywood, people tend to pay more attention to sharks’ teeth and movie sequels than they do to the role these animals play in our oceans. Talk to people about how much healthy oceans depend on sharks, and we may see more attention given to protecting these important creatures.
  • Adopt a shark. No, you don’t need to bring one home. But if you symbolically adopt a shark through our program, your donation will help us continue our work to pass shark fin bans, gain more protection for declining shark species, and put a stop to unregulated shark fin trade.