It’s a well-known fact that sharks make for good headlines.
Just look at the jaw-dropping viral photos and video of divers swimming recently with a great white shark in Hawaii.
Shark attacks, in particular, are covered extensively — whether it’s the teen bitten by a shark while diving for lobsters in California or the first man to die from a great white shark attack in Massachusetts in more than 80 years.
But the latest data from the University of Florida paints a different picture. The university’s International Shark Attack File reported 66 unprovoked shark bites worldwide in 2018 — a significant drop from the 88 of the previous year.
Researchers define “unprovoked attacks” as incidents in which an attack on human beings “occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark.”
While the four shark-attack fatalities in 2018 remain within the average of six deaths per year, and some year-to-year variation in the figures is to be expected, biologist Gavin Naylor maintains that last year’s decline is unusual.
“Statistically, this is an anomaly,” he said in a statement.
It remains to be seen, he added, whether the drop could be attributed to fewer sharks in the ocean or successful policies to warn the public about risks.
“It begs the question of whether we’re seeing fewer bites because there are fewer sharks — that would be the ‘glass half-empty’ interpretation,” he said.
“Or it could be that the general public is heeding the advice of beach safety officials. My hope is that the lower numbers are a consequence of people becoming more aware and accepting of the fact that they’re sharing the ocean with these animals.”
Florida saw its unprovoked bites plunge from 31 in 2017 to 16 last year, according to the International Shark Attack File. Volusia County, considered the shark-attack capital of the world, had four bites, down from nine in 2017, it reported.
In his statement, Naylor says a possible cause could be the fall in the state’s blacktip shark populations.
“Blacktips used to amass in huge numbers along the coast of Florida, and there have been far fewer of them, particularly in the last two or three years,” he said. “The fact that numbers of that particular species appear to be diminishing would be consistent with the number of bites being a little lower than in past years.”