Last year saw a total of 98 unprovoked shark attacks on humans worldwide, according to the International Shark Attack File, which investigates and collects data related to these incidents. Out of these attacks, six of the victims subsequently died. The figure for 2015 is the highest ever recorded, yet this does not mean the rate of shark attacks has increased.
In fact, the number of attacks this year was on par with the average seen over the past decade. However, if we look at the bigger picture – taken from records dating back to the 1950s – the totals have actually been declining, due to an increase in the number of people spending time in the water. And when these figures are compared to other animal attacks, they pale in significance even more. In the United States alone, for example, 4.5 million people a year are bitten by dogs, which in 2015 led to 35 deaths.
Surfer Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark on live TV during a surfing competition last year. CNN/YouTube
Unprovoked attacks are defined as “incidents where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark,” and as such do not include any that occur when fishermen are removing hooks from their mouth, when spear fishermen are out hunting, or when divers are bit after grabbing the animals.
The United States saw the highest number of incidents, recording 59 attacks, with Australia and South Africa following with 18 and eight, respectively. Interestingly, the data shows that the number of attacks off North American states has increased, thought to be due to sharks moving into the ever-warming waters.
The increase in attacks has also been attributed to a rise in the number of people now living by the coast, and therefore entering the water. This assertion has been backed up by data presented on the Australian ABC news program Four Corners, in which records dating back 50 years showed that there was a link between the number of people in a region and shark attacks, but no correlation between shark population size and attack rate.
Surfing and board sports are considered the most dangerous activities when it comes to the number of reported shark attacks, but they are still incredibly rare. mingis/Shutterstock
“I can show statistically that there is no relationship between the number of sharks out there and the number of attacks,” Deakin University’s Laurie Laurenson told Four Corners. “It’s just simply not there. I don’t know. I’m surprised that it’s not there but it’s not there.”
The program also talked to CSIRO shark expert Barry Bruce, who claimed that shark nets, which are frequently deployed to protect popular beaches from the animals, do nothing to reduce the chance of people being attacked. This is because the nets never fully reach the sea floor and only cover a small fraction of the beaches people are using, meaning the sharks simply swim right through them.
The report says that as populations on the coast increase, the number of attacks will only rise in tandem. The best advice is to know who is most at risk, and to then be aware and pay attention to your surroundings. Out of the reported incidents in 2015, the majority occurred on those participating in board sports (such as surfing), followed by swimmers, and then snorkelers, while there were zero attacks on scuba divers. Finally, they note that people should avoid swimming at dawn, dusk, or at night.