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Shark attacks hit record worldwide in 2015, with Florida No. 1

Shark attacks hit an all-time worldwide record in 2015, with Florida — as always — leading the globe in the number of times sharks bit surfers, swimmers and beachfront splashers, according to researchers at the University of Florida.

Florida — in addition to being the Lightning Capital of the Western Hemisphere, Sinkhole Central and the state most likely to be hit by a hurricane — has a longtime reputation as the Shark Attack Capital of the World.

It did nothing to shed that reputation last year, racking up 30 reports of sharks nipping, noshing or chomping on people. That was higher than the 2014 total of 23 attacks, but missed beating Florida's all-time record of 37 in 2000.

Worldwide, the number of attacks hit 98, according to the International Shark Attack File, a research clearinghouse established by the University of Florida in 1958. The previous record of 88 was set in 2000.

The increase in attacks did not surprise George Burgess, the biologist who heads up the International Shark Attack File. More unprovoked bites are inevitable, he said, because shark populations around the U.S. coast have been rebounding due to measures put in place a decade ago. Meanwhile, thanks to a growing U.S. population, more and more people are floundering around in the ocean.

"Sharks plus humans equals attacks," Burgess said. "As our population continues to rapidly grow and shark populations slowly recover, we're going to see more interactions."

But most of the injuries tend to be minor, noted Neil Hammerschlag, who leads the shark research program at the University of Miami. He pointed out that most of the bites were from small species of sharks and the victims didn't need treatment at a hospital.

Sharks don't actually like the taste of human flesh. They prefer fish or turtles. Although researchers have been studying shark attacks for decades, nobody can say for sure why they sometimes grab someone's hand or foot, except that it's probably a mistake.

"Shark bites on people are such a rare event that in most cases there is just too little data to make any strong conclusions as to the reasons behind them," Hammerschlag said.

Only six attacks worldwide were fatal ones, Burgess said, which matches a decades-long average. Two happened off the Indian Ocean island of Réunion. Australia, Egypt, New Caledonia and the United States each had single fatalities.

"We killed more than 150 million sharks and rays last year, and they killed only six humans," Burgess pointed out.

American swimmers, divers and surfers were victims in 59 of last year's attacks, making the U.S. the top place to get tooth marks in your arm or leg. Many of those attacks occurred in two Florida counties: Brevard and Volusia, both on the state's Atlantic coast and both popular with surfers, who are bitten more than anyone else, according to Burgess.

Shark attacks on the Gulf of Mexico side of the state are rare because there is so little surfing here, he said. Last year, for instance, saw only one. In April, a man in his 60s was standing in shallow water at a Marco Island beach when a four-foot shark nipped his leg.

North and South Carolina had eight attacks each in 2015. Hawaii saw seven attacks and the nation's only fatality, with the remaining incidents occurring in California, Texas, Mississippi and New York. The New York attack, Burgess said, brings to light another factor in the increase in attacks: warming ocean waters because of climate change.

He predicted this decade would eventually see more attacks than the previous one — but only because of the rising number of people and sharks.

"We can and should expect the number of attacks to be higher each year," Burgess said. "When we visit the sea, we're on their turf."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

Ways to avoid becoming shark bait

• Stay out of the water between dusk and dawn. That's when the sharks tend to be most active.

• Avoid areas where you see large schools of mullet or lots of sea birds diving for food. Sharks will be following the fish looking for a meal.

• Don't wear jewelry, especially rings on your fingers or toes. The glinting of light off the metal will look to a shark like light reflecting on fish scales.

• Stay in a group instead of striking out on your own. Isolated swimmers and surfers are more vulnerable.

• Surfers should be especially careful, because they tend to be bitten more than any other beachgoer.

Shark attacks hit record worldwide in 2015, with Florida No. 1 02/08/16 [Last modified: Monday, February 8, 2016 9:37pm]
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