Shark Bites Are Up Worldwide

By   |  February 5, 2024

By Dennis Thompson HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2024 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

MONDAY, Feb. 5, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Unprovoked shark attacks increased slightly worldwide last year, but twice as many people died from shark bites as the year before, new data show.

There were 69 unprovoked shark attacks in 2023, higher than the five-year average of 63 attacks per year, according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File.

Ten of the attacks in 2023 proved fatal, up from five the year before, researchers said.

“This is within the range of the normal number of  bites, though the fatalities are a bit unnerving this year,” said Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s shark research program.

Australia suffered a disproportionate number of shark bite deaths, the researchers noted. The continent accounted for 22% of all attacks but made up 40% of fatalities.

Other shark attack deaths occurred in the United States, the Bahamas, Egypt, Mexico and New Caledonia, researchers said.

The United States had 36 unprovoked shark attacks, accounting for 52% of incidents worldwide. Of those, two attacks were fatal, one in California and another in Hawaii.

As has been the case in previous years, Florida had more shark bites than any other state, with 16 attacks.

Confirmed non-fatal bites also happened in Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, New Zealand, Seychelles, Turks and Caicos, Ecuador and South Africa.

This annual report focuses primarily on unprovoked attacks, although the database documents all bites by sharks on humans. 

Provoked attacks include intentionally approaching a shark or swimming in an area where bait is being used to lure fish, researchers said.

Three of 2023’s fatalities occurred at one remote surfing destination, the Eyre Peninsula off the coast of Southern Australia. That area is known for phenomenal surf breaks, making it a hard-to-access but alluring spot for surfers.

Unfortunately, the region also is home to seal colonies and loads of white sharks, researchers said.

“If a white shark is going after a seal and the seal knows it, the white shark hasn’t got a chance,” Naylor explained in a museum news release. “Seals are really agile, so the only ones that get caught are the ones that are goofing off and flopping around on the surface minding their own business. And that’s kind of what a surfer looks like.”

Australia also has bull sharks in and around its tidal rivers, and a death from a bull shark attack occurred in early 2023 at the salty mouth of a river near the coast.

“Beach safety in Australia is second to none. They're fantastic,” said Joe Miguez, a doctoral student in the Florida Program for Shark Research.

“However, if you go to remote regions where beach safety isn’t in place, there is a higher risk of a fatal shark attack. This is because when an attack happens and there is beach safety, you can get a tourniquet on sooner and save the person's life,” Miguez added.

“So, the solution isn’t to not surf,” he concluded. “It’s to surf in areas where there's a good beach safety program in place.”

Most unprovoked attacks are “test bites,” where a shark mistakes a human for preferred prey, like a seal.

When that happens, the shark typically swims away after a single bite. Unfortunately, some shark species are large enough that just one bite can be fatal to humans.

Rarer incidents where a shark continues biting a human rather than swimming away have been documented with tiger sharks, bull sharks and white sharks.

One of 2023’s fatalities involved such a scenario, with a tiger shark along the banks of the Red Sea in Egypt.

“The bite in Egypt stood out because a video shows a tiger shark taking multiple passes at a human in the water. Even though predation events are exceedingly rare, it’s pretty clear that’s what it was,” Miguez said.

Despite the increase in shark bites, researchers say the number of bites and deaths that occurred in 2023 are within the average for the past decade.

Each year, there are consistently fewer than 100 unprovoked bites globally. That means that it’s still more likely you'll win the lottery than be bitten by a shark, the researchers noted.

An increase in shark attacks often means that more people are spending time in the water, rather than some dramatic change in shark behavior, Miguez said.

Something as simple as a holiday weekend falling on a particularly hot day can contribute to a spike in shark bites, and that can be further exacerbated by large schools of fish in a particular area.

That combination led to the first known shark attack in New York City in more than half a century, researchers said. Improved water quality has led to more fish in the waters off New York, which often means more sharks.

“It causes a lot of fear, but the reality is you’re putting a lot of people in the water on a hot day with bait fish in the water,” Naylor said.

Even though the odds of a shark attack are low, researchers said people can take further precautions:

  • Stay close to shore.

  • Don’t swim at dawn or dusk.

  • Avoid excessive splashing.

  • Swim with a buddy, as sharks are more likely to approach solitary figures.

  • Remove shiny jewelry that can be mistaken for fish scales.

More information

The Florida Museum of Natural History has more about avoiding shark attacks.

SOURCE: Florida Museum of Natural History, news release, Feb. 5, 2024