"Falling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year, 15 times the number of fatalities attributable to sharks," said George Burgess, Director of the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File and a noted shark researcher.
"The reality is that, on the list of potential dangers encountered in aquatic recreation, sharks are right at the bottom of the list," said Burgess who was one of three scientists participating Tuesday in a National Sea Grant College Program and NOAA Fisheries sponsored press briefing on sharks and the risks of shark attacks at the National Press Club.
The event served to put the risk of shark attacks in perspective, provide resources on how to reduce the chance of a shark encounter, explain the scientific value of sharks to the coastal ecosystem and discuss fisheries management and conservation issues.
The event also marked the launch of a special NOAA informational website on sharks.
The need for public education about sharks and shark attacks arose after intense media attention was given to last summer's shark encounters. The frenzy surrounding sharks was capped by one publication dubbing 2001 "The Summer of the Shark" in a July cover story. The result was a frightened public -- especially along the East Coast, where much of the shark attack publicity was centered.
Burgess explained that the prevailing perception was that 2001 was a record year for shark attacks. In fact, the number of unprovoked shark attacks in the U.S. during the summer of 2001 was nearly identical to the previous summer. Internationally, there were actually fewer (76) unprovoked attacks last summer than in the summer of 2000, when there were 86.
While the number of shark attacks has consistently risen from year to year, so has the human population, said Burgess. More people spend time in or near the ocean than ever before. Additionally, records for tracking shark attacks have become more efficient, contributing to the increased numbers of shark incidences.
Joining Burgess in the presentations about shark attacks, shark biology and shark conservation and management were Bob Hueter, Director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Rebecca Lent, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs at NOAA Fisheries.
In her presentation, Lent noted that shark populations are not rising. Some shark populations have been in decline since the mid-1980s, when the commercial fishing industry began catching sharks in great numbers.
Sharks are vulnerable to overfishing because they have long lives, require many years to mature and produce few young at a time. Since recovery to pre-fishing populations will take many years, it is important for the shark fishery to be managed to promote its long-term health, explained Lent.
Current management efforts, developed by NOAA Fisheries in 1993, include harvest limits in commercial and recreational fisheries, data collection programs, permitting and reporting requirements, bycatch reduction of sharks in all fisheries and promoting sea safety for shark fishermen. These measures apply to sharks in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea and may soon include the Pacific Ocean.
In 2001, NOAA Fisheries implemented the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, a national ban on the practice of removing a shark's fin and dumping the remaining body into the water. They also released a National Plan for Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks, and encouraged other countries to develop similar shark conservation and management measures.
"The benefits of sharks to people far outweigh the threat they pose," said Bob Hueter, Director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory. Their unique biology and resource value make them an important marine resource.
One of the shark's benefits to the ocean environment, Hueter explained, is its position on top of the food chain. As a predator to most animals, it provides ecological balance and biological control of other species.
Sharks provide benefits to human health, too, with anti-cancer properties and as a source of therapeutic materials. Also, its highly developed biological structure makes it a classic vertebrate anatomy tool.
Most sharks feed on smaller fishes and other marine creatures, not humans. When a shark bites a person, it is usually by mistake. Once it realizes that it has not bitten a fish, it lets go and swims away. The result is usually a bruise or cut that requires stitches but is not life-threatening. Occasionally, however, shark bites cause serious injuries and can be fatal on rare occasions.
The relative risk of a shark attack is very small, but risks should always be minimized whenever possible in any activity. The chances of having an interaction with a shark can be reduced if one heeds the following advice that comes from Burgess's International Shark Attack File Website:
* Always stay in groups, as sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
* Do not wander too far from shore -- this isolates an individual and additionally places one far away from assistance.
* Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
* Do not enter the water if bleeding from an open wound or if menstruating -- a shark's olfactory ability is acute.
* Wearing shiny jewelry is discouraged because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
* Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial fishermen, especially if there are signs of bait fishes or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.
* Sightings of porpoises do not indicate the absence of sharks -- both often eat the same food items.
* Use extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing -- sharks see contrast particularly well.
* Refrain from excess splashing and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
* Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep drop offs -- these are favorite hangouts for sharks.
* Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present and evacuate the water if sharks are seen while there. And, of course, do not harass a shark if you see one.
[Contact: Ben Sherman]