Ecocentric

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?

16 comments
stormy
stormy

Just love the word " unprovoked " when referring to shark attacks. What is a " provoked 'attack. Poking a shark with a stick? And are there more " provoked " attacks that go unreported ?. The bottom line is that sharks remain an enigma. For all the data over the years, it is quite obvious that the sharks have not read it. As for all the statistics of the rarity of being attacked by a shark . I am sure that will be of great comfort to a victim whilst being devoured.

SarahMucha
SarahMucha

I love the ocean.  When I enter the water I know that the sea is not my home.  When we enter we are guests.  If I die, don't blame the sharks.  It is a risk I am willing to take.  If you are not willing to take the risk, then stay ashore. 

guyinsb
guyinsb

Humans can also use the equipment between their ears to avoid sharks.  The overwhelming number of shark attacks in Hawaii occur:

- just after sunrise, or just before sunset

- after a rainstorm, when streams have muddied the waters, and delivered snacks for sharks

Destination360
Destination360

But its makes me think twice as i prepare for next week's trip to Maui to snorkel, windsurf, and swim.

ohyeah2013
ohyeah2013

if you enter the water, your statistical analysis figures regarding bite occurrence are way higher than quoted in this article.

samT
samT

Mr. Walsh: WHY do you and other "journalists" insist on using the phrase "unprovoked shark attacks"?

Does ANYone with knowledge and understanding of sharks actually believed there are provoked attacks (meaning that a human "riled" up the shark so much that the shark got angry and defensive)? ALL shark attacks on humans are either cases of mistaken identity or (even rarer) cases of extreme hunger (I know there have been ultra rare cases of one shark getting "a taste" for human prey, but only those who think "Jaws" is a documentary believe that is common).

So  if you're trying to point out that humans are more dangerous to sharks -- which is true -- WHY on earth would you use the erroneous phrase above?

Get thee to an editor!

Champagne
Champagne

These sons of bitches sharks will take advantage of any leg dangling in the water. Cannot blame them - - warm water, hunger, dangling piece of meat. The ocean is the realm of the shark. Conditions for the attack were perfect. Sorry mister.

stormy
stormy

@Destination360I have snorkeled in Maui for the past ten years. Quite, frankly the fish have almost disappeared and the coral is very bland. A shark attack took place last year at the exact same spot that I was snorkeling, fortunately the victim fought the shark off. Trust I am not a brave person in the ocean and stay close to shore. I for one do not intend to go too far into the ocean this year.

PaulCrooks
PaulCrooks

@ohyeah2013


The statistics reported via the article are based on a national beach-attendance of 264,156,278 persons as estimated via the United States Lifesaving Association's 68 contributing lifeguard agencies -- the various incidents' rates and odds of occurrence are modelled against that figure.

The article offers hyperlinks enabling one to scrutinise the Authors accuracy or indeed scientific accuracy -- either to righteousness or, as in this case, self-embarrassment.

BradNelson
BradNelson

@samT You say ALL attacks are unprovoked...this is not true.  I am a diver and love to dive with sharks but there are many cases of people irritating sharks while diving by being irresponsible and un-respectful.  For some reason, people think that sharks are there to be pet like a dog, I have even seen video of a guy that was bit for grabbing a sharks tail...yep, gonna get bit doing that!  Although this is rare for divers to do this, the phrase you are referring to is needed because there are stupid people out there.

PaulCrooks
PaulCrooks

not just @Champagne but for all inquisitive readers... (with inquisitive meaning shrewd and investigative)

The above media-article avails a hyperlink to the International Shark Attack File -- a website with a vast array of information and further links to numerous other research organisations where persons may obtain knowledge about sharks across a vast array of sub-topics. See: http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/isaf/isaf.htm


From that link, ie; at that website, there are numerous links to other research institutes and organisations, with links from those websites to further-other institutes' and organisations' websites and research, and so-on. Seriously -- in an age of information (at our fingertips), ignorance has a new meaning: arrogance... I proffer that not to insult, but to motivate -- with inquisitive meaning shrewd and investigative -- we can know just about anything in an instant.


The claim: "...sharks will take advantage of any leg dangling in the water..." and myriad similar claims are simply not true and in fact -- way off the radar. "Warm water" is also misleading, as is the correlation to "dangling meat". 
Research has shown us that sharks are predatory upon marine animals and are NOT predatory upon humans -- with the term and phenomenon of any kind of 'rogue shark' being long-debunked also... 


Every day, millions of persons enter marine-waters around the globe -- equating to billions of human-water entries per year, with an average of but only 70 to 90 shark-encountered incidents leading to around 5 to 15 human deaths and around 40 to 60 human injuries per year; with some injuries being insignificant. Regardless of comparison to other activities that may result in harm or death to humans, the reality here is -- at-most 100 incidents per year in the face of billions of "dangling meat" opportunities for sharks.

The below link is to a media-release about just one tagging/tracking research project out of numerous globally -- revealing tens of thousands of humans swimming 'unaware' of the so-called dangers 'lurking beneath' just a few feet away. 
http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/map-of-shark-movements-on-australia-day-prove-animals-share-the-busy-waterway/story-e6frflp0-1226121711604

SuperMario27
SuperMario27

We kill way more sharks that they kill of us......but sharks are "sons of bitches".....they are the evil ones for trying to survive in nature.

PaulCrooks
PaulCrooks

@BradNelson @samT 

I too dive, Brad and Sam, and attacks also arise from indirect provocation, and some are recorded in the files as 'provoked' attacks -- depending on evidence. Certain swift or threatening movements made by a diver -- not necessarily towards the shark or making contact with it -- even camera flashes are known to sometimes provoke shark's into aggressive states -- and though we might see that as unprovoked -- a description of events can render it as a provoked attack. 

I have personally had a near-miss when guiding my torch into a ledge/cavern seeking cuttlefish, only to find a Wobbegong inches from my hand perhaps 10 seconds after 'seeking'. The Wobby stayed put with no sign of perturbation... I then left to grab my buddy 12 feet away so as to allow him a view also -- it was a huge fat healthy-lookin beast after all !!! But on guiding the torch in for the second time, the Wobby lunged at me -- but without biting or contacting me and it immediately settled back to where it was. I took it as warning as to whose ledge it was going to be for the night, and/or that it was already digesting food. Had it bit, I believe my account would have been recorded as provoked -- I certainly would have reported it this way.