For the past decade, North Carolina has experienced between one and five shark attacks per year, none of which have been fatal. But since June, the state’s coast has witnessed a total of seven attacks, bringing the total for North and South Carolina up to 11 so far this year, which together usually only experience an annual average of six.
Understandably, this unusual peak has raised concerns and prompted many to ask “Why?” The short answer unfortunately seems to be: We don’t really know. At this stage, anyway. Scientists haven’t really had enough time to probe the situation thoroughly in order to identify possible contributing factors, and it’s really even too early to say whether something significant is going on in the state.
Hopefully, we will gain a clearer picture after researchers have scrutinized long-term data patterns. However, some possible explanations have already surfaced. This may be a case of Occam’s razor, where the simplest answer is best: Perhaps there are just more people in the water. As George Burgess from the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File points out to NPR, these two states have grown in popularity as tourist destinations, so if the waters have more visitors, then a greater number of people are exposed to sharks.
Some have suggested that a rebound in shark numbers could be to blame, but global shark populations have been experiencing a significant decline over the past few decades, with some estimates suggesting that we could be losing 100 million each year. That being said, a 2014 study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that conservation efforts have helped great white shark numbers slowly rise in the western North Atlantic since 2000.
Even if great whites are recovering in the area, this doesn’t necessarily explain the attacks as the species responsible have yet to be identified. According to Breitbart News, evidence gathered so far from the victims suggests that the animals ranged from one and a half to two and a half meters in length (5 to 8 feet). The attacks have also ranged in severity, from a bite requiring eight stitches to life-threatening injuries across the body, so it’s entirely possible that the incidences have involved different species. Further examination of the wounds inflicted and the sharks present in the area will hopefully tell us more.
A whole host of other possible factors are also being considered. Low rainfall along the coast has made the water more salty, a condition favorable to both sharks and their prey, which could mean that more sharks are approaching the area. Some studies have also suggested that certain species become agitated above a certain temperature – 27ºC (80ºF) – so it may be that warmer waters are altering their behavior.
Unfortunately, shark fishing has not been banned in the area, and fishermen chuck fish guts, or “chum,” into the water to attract the animals, which could be inviting them into areas used by swimmers. But it’s not necessarily the fishermen that are to blame, as it’s also sea turtle nesting season, which means there are plenty of hatchlings to feast on.
Ultimately, it could be any or none of these things that have contributed to the attacks, but until the year is over, we don’t even know whether what we are seeing is truly an anomaly. Last year, there were a total of 72 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks on humans, 52 of which occurred in the U.S. So far this year, the U.S. has experienced 25, and since we’re already in July, we may not exceed last year’s number, so this does beg the question of whether concern is warranted yet.