As the summer beach season opens in the United States, at least one expert is predicting an increase in shark attacks around the world this year that will surpass last year’s record number.
“We should have more bites this year than last,” George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, said in an interview shortly before the Memorial Day holiday weekend that signals the unofficial start of America’s summer vacation – and beach – season.
In 2015, there were 98 shark attacks, including six fatalities, according to Burgess.
Why the increased bloodshed? Shark populations are slowly recovering from historic lows in the 1990s, the world’s human population has grown and rising temperatures are leading more people to go swimming, Burgess said.
Still, the university notes that fatal shark attacks, while undeniably graphic, are so infrequent that beachgoers face a higher risk of being killed by sand collapsing as the result of over achieving sand castle builders.
With their fearsome teeth and dorsal fins the inspiration for hit movies, TV series and beach-town souvenirs, it is hard to believe that a century ago American scientists did not believe sharks would fatally attack humans in U.S. temperate waters without provocation.
That changed in July 1916, when four people were killed in attacks near the New Jersey shore, a series of deaths blamed on a sea turtle until a great white shark with human remains in its stomach was captured nearby.
Since those attacks, public opinion of sharks has changed dramatically, with swimmers’ fears fanned by fiction, from the 1975 Academy Award-winning film “Jaws,” based on Peter Benchley’s book about a giant man-eater, to the Discovery Channel’s modern “Shark Week” summer television series.
Years before the attacks near the northern Jersey Shore town of Keyport, millionaire businessman Hermann Oelrichs offered a $500 prize in 1891 (more than $13,000 in today’s dollars) to anyone who could prove that a shark ever bit a human in nontropical waters. The reward was never claimed.
Well-regarded scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York pointed to Oelrichs’ wager as proof that no shark would bite a human, according to Michael Capuzzo’s 2001 book “Close to Shore.”
Even the New York Times in a 1915 editorial titled “Let Us Do Justice to the Sharks” cited Oelrichs’ offer and said, “That sharks can properly be called dangerous in this part of the world is apparently untrue.”
HUNTER BECOMES THE HUNTED
While those attacks gave oceangoers pause for decades, “Jaws” turned the hunter into the hunted, Burgess said.
“Every red-blooded American man felt obliged to go out and catch sharks, which were readily capturable,” said the University of Florida’s Burgess, noting that they can be caught offshore and from small boats. “It became the blue-collar marlin.”
Sharks were being killed by sportfishing fleets as well as commercial fishermen seeking steaks for U.S. grocery stores and Asian markets for shark fin soup, regarded as an aphrodisiac in some cultures.
By the late 1980s, shark populations were crashing, and scientists sounded the alarm. The first law protecting sharks was passed in the 1990s in Florida – the home to the largest shark population of any U.S. state – and limited the daily catch to one shark per person, according to Burgess.
Federal safeguards followed, as well as more state efforts like the shark fin ban that has gone into effect in 10 states and is under consideration in Rhode Island.
Conservation efforts have introduced the public to another side of sharks: their vital link to the ocean ecosystem, their typically curious and shy nature, even the human-like birth of their offspring rather than laying eggs like other fish.
The public is clearly hooked. Aquariums from San Francisco to Brooklyn say sharks are among the most popular attractions, and some people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to swim close to them.
Mario Caruso, 42, a Brooklyn father of two, said it was well worth the $250 he paid to spend an hour submerged in the Atlantic Ocean inside a metal cage with sharks prowling around him off Montauk, New York.
“The first time, you get that rush of adrenaline and then, ‘Oh, boy – he’s got teeth!’,” he said.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)