Could Shark Attacks Reach Record Highs In 2016?

Last year saw a record number of shark attacks around the globe, and as summer kicks off this Memorial Day weekend, one well-regarded expert has posited that 2016 could see an even greater number of interactions between the oceanic predators and mankind.

George Burgess heads the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, according to Reuters. In a recent interview conducted ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, he predicted that a confluence of factors could make this summer one for the record books, logging more shark attacks than in any other year previously recorded.

“We should have more bites this year than last.”

Burgess pointed to several long-term trends that have combined to create the perfect opportunity for sharks and humans to interact. Shark populations were at historic lows in the 1990s, yet the introduction of protective legislation has helped them rebound. Aside from Federal safeguards, 10 states have instituted bans on the sale of shark fins, and a similar measure is currently under consideration in Rhode Island.

Rising shark populations have been met in kind by an ever-growing human population as well, while steadily increasing temperatures continue to lead more and more people to ocean-based activities like swimming and paddleboarding. Last year, 98 of those individuals were involved in shark attacks, leading to six fatalities globally.

While shark attacks are graphic in nature, statistics prove that beachgoers actually have little to fear. The public may be hooked on sharks, as evinced by Discovery’s long running and hugely popular Shark Week, but attacks actually occur very infrequently. As the Florida Museum of Natural History notes, the average beachgoer has a one in 3,748,067 chance of being attacked by a shark during their lifetime. This means that you are more likely to die from a sand castle collapse than a shark attack; in truth, an individual is 75 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a shark, and 132 times more likely to drown during a beach trip.

These seemingly astronomical odds haven’t stopped the public from becoming fascinated with sharks, however, and attacks only feed that appetite. In July of 1916, the public imagination was gripped by a series of attacks near the New Jersey shoreline, which resulted in the deaths of four people. One of the first sensational media representations of shark attacks, these incidents proved to the public at large that sharks could be dangerous to humans outside of tropical waters. Prior to 1916, this was not a widely accepted fact.

The rest of the 20th century saw sharks unjustly vilified, a process helped along greatly by 1975’s Jaws. As Burgess notes, one of the unintended side effects of that film’s iconic success (it was the first ever summer blockbuster) was a sudden open season on sharks.

“Every red-blooded American man felt obliged to go out and catch sharks, which were readily capturable. It became the blue-collar marlin.”

By the late 1980s, scientists were warning that shark populations were under dire pressure, and in the ensuing decades they have made a dramatic turnaround. Thanks to the efforts of conservation and research groups like Ocearch and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, public perception of sharks has drastically shifted, and an animal once thought to be a mindless killing machine is now seen as an integral part of the ocean’s ecosystem.

As the summer of 2016 heads into full swing, public fascination with the predators has only continued to grow. It remains to be seen whether this year will log more shark attacks than the last, yet the coming months will no doubt yield some tales of interaction between sharks and man.

[Photo by Elias Levy – Own Work via Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC BY 2.0]