The Jaws movie franchise may be responsible for stoking a generation-wide phobia of sharks, but the poor creatures don't deserve such a grisly reputation.
Only six people die from an unprovoked shark attack, on average, each year. That is an infinitesimally small fraction of the number of people killed by rabid dogs (59,000) and an even smaller percentage of sharks killed by humans – 11,417 every single hour (or approximately 100 million a year).
However, according to a study published in PLOS ONE, the rate of shark attacks has been increasing in recent years, albeit only in highly populated coastal regions. For example, parts of the eastern US and southern Australia, where the number of people caught up in attacks has doubled over the last 20 years. Stephen Midway, assistant professor from the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University, says that though the rates remain low, they should continue to be monitored.
Midway's interest in shark aggression was piqued by a flurry of attacks that took place on the coast of North Carolina in 2015, now thought to be the result of a culmination of factors: an unusually warm summer, high numbers of beachgoers, and differences in prey distribution.
"I was curious what the likelihood of shark attacks is in a certain number of years at different places around the world," he said in a statement.
"While shark attacks are often reported in numbers, we factored in the regional human populations to determine the rate of shark attacks worldwide."
To do so, Midway and colleagues used time series modeling to determine rates of shark attacks in 14 countries between 1960 and 2015. Data was lifted from the International Shark Attack File. From there, they took the three countries with the highest number of attacks (the US, Australia, and South Africa) and investigated further, finding that while rates remain low, they have doubled in highly populated regions over the last two decades.
But the blame is on us. "As development increases along the coast and in beach communities, more residents and tourists frequent these waters. With more people in the water, the chance for a shark attack increases," Midway explained.
"However, I must stress the fact that not all places across the globe saw an increase." In California, for instance, a 2015 study led by Stanford University researchers found that the number of attacks has fallen significantly. "And even in the places where we saw an increase, the chances were still one in several million." People who enter the sea are almost 2,000 times more likely to die from drowning than a shark bite.
It's also worth pointing out that the vast majority of these attacks (85 percent) were non-fatal, though this figure does vary by region. In the US, for example, there were 1,215 shark attacks reported between 1960 and 2015 but only 24 (or 2 percent) were fatal. Most were no more severe than a dog bite. In comparison, there were just 13 reported shark attacks in Hong Kong but 10 (or 77 percent) proved deadly.
"Humans have always demonized sharks because they are elusive and live in an environment that's not native to us – the sea," co-author George Burgess, director emeritus at the University of Florida, added.
"We would like people to know that these shark attack events need to be put into perspective whenever they occur. This study helps us step back and look at the big picture."
After all, you are far more likely to be killed taking a selfie than by a shark.