The US is once again the shark attack capital of the world in 2020. Thanks, Florida!
Last year, the US reported 33 unprovoked shark attacks, accounting for about 58% of the total number of unprovoked shark attacks that occurred worldwide, according to the Yearly World Shark Attack Summary from the International Shark Attack File (ISAF).
This is a decrease from 2019, when 64% of the global unprovoked bites occurred in the US.
ISAF categorizes shark attacks by first deciding if they were provoked or unprovoked.
“Unprovoked attacks are defined as incidents in which an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark,” ISAF said.
“Provoked attacks occur when a human initiates interaction with a shark in some way. These include instances when divers are bitten after harassing or trying to touch sharks, bites on spearfishers, bites on people attempting to feed sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net and so forth.”
ISAF said it investigated 129 alleged shark-human interactions worldwide in 2020 — 57 were unprovoked shark bites on humans, and 39 were provoked bites.
Of the 33 unprovoked shark attacks in the US, 16 of them were in Florida. The state’s 16 cases represent 28% of unprovoked bites worldwide.
“For decades, Florida has topped global charts in the number of shark bites, and this trend continued in 2020,” ISAF said in its summary. “However, the state saw a significant drop from its most recent five-year annual average of 30 incidents.”
Eight of the shark bites in Florida, or 50% of the state’s total in 2020, occurred in Volusia County, according to the ISAF.
How the pandemic impacted shark attack reporting process
ISAF said that while the incidence of bites both in the US and globally have been declining over time, “2020’s numbers represent a more drastic drop than would be expected.”
Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s shark research program, said that Covid-19’s impact was something he and his colleagues speculated about back in March.
According to Naylor, the pandemic hasn’t necessarily caused a drop in cases — but it has impacted researchers’ ability to follow-up and confirm cases when they are reported.
“We typically talk to emergency room doctors and nurses to create our reports,” Naylor said. “However, they’ve been so overwhelmed with the Covid-19 response that they haven’t always had time to talk to a bunch of scientists that are asking detailed questions about a shark attack.”
Based on its research in the last year, ISAF said the “observed drop in shark bite incidents may have been caused by the widespread quarantines, closed beaches and minimized vacation travel in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Spike in shark-related fatalities reported worldwide
There were 13 shark-related fatalities this year, 10 of which were confirmed to be unprovoked, ISAF said in its Yearly Worldwide Shark Attack Summary.
“This number is above the annual global average of four unprovoked fatalities per year,” ISAF wrote.
But, “despite 2020’s spike in fatalities, long-term trends show a decreasing number of annual fatalities. Year-to-year variability in oceanographic, socioeconomic and meteorological conditions significantly influences the local abundance of sharks and humans in the water.”
Of the global fatalities, Australia saw “a higher incidence of fatal bites than normal in 2020,” ISAF said. The country had six confirmed fatal shark attacks.
“Australians are not naive when it comes to the inherent dangers of surfing and swimming,” Naylor said. “So I was surprised that the number was as high as it was this year.”
Meanwhile, in the US, there were three confirmed fatal shark attacks last year. This is an increase from 2019, when there weren’t any confirmed cases in the US.
The three fatal attacks happened in Hawaii, California and Maine. Although Florida is usually home to most of the unprovoked attacks, the state didn’t have any confirmed fatalities last year.
How to avoid a shark attack
Most bites — 61% of the total cases in 2020 — were related to surfing and board sports, ISAF said.
But don’t worry: “Short-term trends still show both fatal and non-fatal bites to be decreasing,” ISAF said.
“The total number of unprovoked shark bites worldwide is extremely low, given the number of people participating in aquatic recreation each year.”
Should you find yourself in the sea, ISAF said there are many ways to avoid a shark attack.
ISAF encourages people “avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.”
The organization also urges people to not enter the water if they are bleeding, because “a shark’s olfactory ability is acute.”
Shiny jewelry can also attract sharks, as “the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.”
ISAF also encouraged people to avoid wearing bright swimwear or dive gear, because “any high contrast color apparel or gear used by a human in the water is especially visible to sharks.”