The Paradox of Shark Attacks

Slaughtered sharks at a processing factory in China, July 26, 2011.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last century, shark attacks have increased. The death rate from shark attacks, however, has declined. These two trends might be happening for the same reason.

This week the International Shark Attack File released its annual report on incidents around the world. The 2013 tally is down from the previous year. Nevertheless, the report emphasizes that

the number of worldwide unprovoked shark attacks has grown at a steady pace since 1900, with each decade having more attacks than the previous. … [This] most likely reflects the ever-increasing amount of time spent in the sea by humans, which increases the opportunities for interaction between the two affected parties. … As world population continues its upsurge and interest in aquatic recreation concurrently rises, we realistically should expect increases in the number of shark attacks …

In an interview with the University of Florida news service, ISAF curator George Burgess explains how economic development has contributed to shark attacks:

In recent years, Burgess said, globalization, tourism and population growth worldwide have led to shark attacks in historically low-contact areas like Reunion Island, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Solomon Island and the small island Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, which in 2013 saw its first recorded shark attack. As more people enter the water in these areas, they become equal opportunity locations for shark-human interaction, he said.

“Globalization of societies and the ease of modern travel means that we have access to places that have never been frequented by tourists before,” Burgess said. “Remote destinations are not typically medically equipped to handle a serious shark attack. This situation is a key factor in the higher death rate this year. When a shark attack happens in a remote place, the results are going to be more dire than if it happened on a Florida beach, for instance.”

That makes sense. But remote is an unstable characteristic. The more popular a remote destination becomes, the less remote it is. Growth and development don’t just change the likelihood of encountering a shark. They change the likelihood of surviving an attack.

In this regard, the ISAF numbers are striking. Since 2002 most of the attacks reported to ISAF have happened in the United States. On a population basis, that makes the U.S. the most dangerous place to be in the water. Yet during that time, only nine of the world’s 70 shark-attack deaths have occurred here. In 2012 the fatality rate from shark attacks worldwide was 22 percent. In 2013 it was 36 percent. In the U.S. the fatality rate in both years was 2 percent.

Where did the fatal attacks occur? Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Jamaica, New Zealand, Réunion, and Diego Garcia. ISAF attributes the lower U.S. mortality rate to “the greater safety and medical capacity in areas of the U.S. where shark attacks historically occur.” Last year’s sole fatal attack in U.S. waters wasn’t anywhere near the mainland. It was in Hawaii.

In 2011 the story was different. ISAF reported the lowest number of U.S. attacks in this century—and the highest number of deaths worldwide. These two records, it explained, were closely related:

The unusually low proportion of attacks occurring in the United States, particularly in Florida, and a jump in attacks in non-U.S. locales not blessed with as highly-developed safety and medical personnel and facilities led to an unusually high number of deaths. The fatality rate in the U.S. was zero, elsewhere it was nearly 25%.

Highly developed medical facilities. Safety personnel. That’s what happens as your economy grows and people spend more time at the beach. Humans encounter sharks. The number of attacks increases, even as shark populations decline. But gradually, what was once a remote area becomes a populated coast with lifeguards, decent roads, and good hospitals. Shark attacks become a more common story, in part because the victims live to tell the tale.