In the War Between Sharks and People, Humans Are Killing It

A spate of shark attacks off Hawaii raises old fears about the predators of the oceans. But humans are much more dangerous.

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Jens Kuhfs via Getty Images

Sharks like the great white have evolved to kill, but human beings are far more lethal

The media have something in common with sharks: feeding frenzies. On Dec. 2, a kayak fisherman died after being bitten by a shark off the Hawaiian island of Maui. It was the 13th shark incident reported in Hawaii this year, and the eighth off Maui alone. That’s well above the state’s average of four unprovoked shark attacks per year over the past two decades, and it comes on the heels of 10 reported attacks in 2012.

The media were quick to jump on the shark-attack story — see these pieces from CNN and the BBC, among many others. You’re not likely to see national news networks cover the 10 or so Americans who die from unintentional drowning each day with the same alacrity that they’ll flock to a fatal shark bite. But chances are that the increase in shark attacks in Hawaii over the past couple of years is just a matter of chance. As the Honolulu Star-Advertiser pointed out, shark attacks in Hawaii tend to be highly variable on a year-by-year basis, for unclear reasons, with no reported attacks in 1998 and just one in 2008.

According to the International Shark Attack File, the number of unprovoked attacks globally has grown at a steady pace since 1900, but that’s likely not a reflection of an increase in the aggressiveness of sharks:

The numerical growth in shark interactions does not necessarily mean that there is an increase in the rate of shark attacks; rather, it most likely reflects the ever-increasing amount of time spent in the sea by humans, which increases the opportunities for interaction between the two affected parties.

(MORE: Can Sharks Tame the Invasive Lionfish?)

It doesn’t help that as humans spend more time in the water, they’re also engaging in activities that may bring them even closer to sharks. The man attacked in Maui on Dec. 2 was fishing in a kayak, which leaves participants much closer to the water — and therefore any sharks — than they would be while fishing in a boat. (Kayaking is becoming increasingly popular, growing by 27% in 2012 and 32% over the past three years.) None of this is to blame the victims, who were simply unlucky. But fatal shark attacks still remain incredibly rare — a person’s chance of being attacked by a shark in the U.S. is 1 in 11.5 million, and the chance of being killed by a bite is less than 1 in 264.1 million. In New York alone, people are bitten 10 times more each year by other people than worldwide by sharks. You’re far more likely to simply drown while swimming in the ocean — or die in a car crash on the way to the beach — than you are to be killed by a shark.

In fact, sharks have much, much more to fear from human beings than we have to fear from a great white, a bull or a tiger shark (to name the three species responsible for the vast majority of fatal attacks on people). Each year, fishermen kill as many as 73 million sharks, often cutting off their fins — for use in shark-fin soup, a popular dish in much of Asia. And tens of millions more sharks die accidentally each year because of fishing gear set for other species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that as many as a third of all shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction, including the iconic great white.

So if you’re keeping track in the sharks-vs.-humans war, the tally is Humans: 100 million (or so), Sharks: 7 (that’s the number of human beings killed in unprovoked shark attacks last year). Sharks may be nature’s sleekest predator, evolved over 400 million years to hunt. But in the oceans, we’re the real mindless killing machines.

MORE: A Happier Year in Store for America’s Sharks?