Data Source: International Shark Attack File (ISAF). These data should be used with caution, remembering that scientific and media coverage of shark attacks during the early part of this century was far less inclusive than that today. The apparent drop in number of attacks in the 1970’s and 1980’s is in part reflective of the largely inactive state of the ISAF during those decades.

We should be afraid of sharks
half as much as sharks should be afraid of us.

 — Peter Benchley (Author of Jaws)

[Listen and read]

The classic tune to Jaws strike fear even in the most causal beach goer. As a marine biologist and surfer I spent a fair amount of time in the water and way too much time thinking about sharks. After I first saw Jaws at age 18 you couldn’t pay me to get in the ocean for a couple of weeks. There is something terrifying about the idea of a giant powerful creature suddenly decided to eat you and there is nothing you can do about it. The truth however is this: after literally thousands of surf and dive sessions all over the globe I am actually more concerned about the rarity of sharks then being attacked. I have probably only seen sharks a few dozens times, and then only very briefly at that. If you want to see sharks these days just go where people aren’t and they are all over the place, as they should be. You see Jaws had two major effects, neither of them good: it scared the hell out of people who spend time in the ocean and it created a man-hungry stereotype of sharks that simply isn’t true (with some important exceptions) that has had major negative consequences for shark populations. So here are five things you should know about sharks and shark attacks.

1. The Population Bomb: shark attacks increase with the human population boom.

Crowded Beach in China's Shandong Province. Source: REUTERS
Crowded Beach in China’s Shandong Province. Source: REUTERS

Yes, shark attacks are increasing but don’t worry: your chances of an attack are probably not changing. The primary reason attacks are increasing is that there are more and more people surfing, swimming, diving and just hanging out in the ocean, so there is a higher absolute number of attacks. In place after place the trend of increasing attacks coincidences with increasing human population size and in turn the number of people entering the ocean (see below). In the USA, for example, about 264 million people visited beaches in 2000 and the odds of drowning were 1 in 3.3 million while the odds of being attacked by a shark were 1 in 11.5 million (and 1 in 264 million for a fatal attack) (International Shark Attack File). For comparison the odds of dying in a car accident are about 1 in 500. Thus despite the global increase in shark attacks your chance of being attacked is astonishingly low. Still, there are few others things you need to know.

Shark attack in relationship to human population size. In all cases an increasing number of unprovoked attacks has increased with human population growth. Source: International Shark Attack File.


2. The Endless Summer: surfers are the most common victims.

Surfers at Pipeline, Hawaii. Photo: Sean Davey.
Surfers at Pipeline, Hawaii. Photo: Sean Davey.

Surfers are the most likely people to be attacked by sharks. There are among a group of victims called “surface recreationalists” by the International Shark Attack File that also includes water skiing, windsurfing, boogie boarding, rafting, or floating on inflatables that make up the largest single group of people attacked. Next in line are swimmers and bathers, then divers (mostly Scuba but also hookah and  free-diving). The last group are those entering or exiting the water, such as when climbing a ladder into a boat or jumping off a platform. Of the 242 known attacks in California, for example, 28% were surfers,10% swimmers, 9% Scuba divers, 8% free divers with most of the rest were fishers, kayakers and skin divers. No one knows why surfers are the largest group of victims. But the sharks that cause most of the attacks (see below) are large, powerful predators that commonly prey on surface-based prey such as marine mammals, sea turtles and birds. Also, surfers tend to spend longer amounts of time in the water than most other groups, making them more vulnerable, and the shape of their surface profile unfortunately resembles many of their marine mammal prey.

Source: International Shark Attack File.


3. Cape Fear: Great white sharks are the most likely to attack.

Not your favorite things to see: Great White Shark opening mouth — Image by © Denis Scott/Corbis

Of the 500+ species of sharks at least 34 species have been observed to attack humans. Of those just three — the Great White, Tiger and Bull sharks — are responsible for 63% of all attacks and 83% of all fatal attacks (click here to see all species). Great white sharks alone account for half of all fatal attacks. Why? These are large, powerful predators that often target large prey items such as fish (including other sharks), dolphins and to some extent whales, sea lions, seals, turtles and sea birds. However, all of these are opportunistic to varying degrees and may eat a wide range of items. Tiger and Bull sharks, for example, may consume just about anything and are also called “garbage eaters.” Great whites, although they can be extremely aggressive, are ambush predators, often taking their marine mammal prey by surprise from below; which is why most people never see the shark until they are attacked. Tiger and Bull sharks are known to frequent shallow waters; Tigers may dwell in river mouths and Bull sharks often swim up rivers and can survive in freshwater for extended periods of time.

Data from International Shark Attack File. Positive identification of attacking sharks is very difficult since victims rarely make adequate observations of the attacker during the “heat” of the interaction.

4. Jinxed by “Jaws”: most sharks are harmless.

Jaws: setting a new paradigm for sharks as the man-eating predator. Most sharks are harmless.

Despite the vision of a man-eating predator crashing through ship hulls and buildings as depicted in Hollywood in Jaws (and more recently Sharknado) the vast majority of sharks are harmless to humans. The reality is that this misplaced stereotype has resulted in massive senseless killings of sharks across the globe. This situation, combined with the harvesting of sharks for food and by-catch in nets (unintentional catches) has resulted in the death of 100 million sharks a year and a 90 percent reduction in many species over the last 50-100 years. Sharks now represent the largest group of threatened marine species on the World Conservation Union’s Red List and only three species have any form of protection (basking, whale and white) (Oceana report, 2008). For example, shark finning, the use of shark fins to make soup, kills an estimated 26-73 million sharks annually.

This file picture taken on January 2, 2013 shows shark fins drying on the roof of a factory building in Hong Kong. Antony Dickson /AFP/Getty Images
Shark fins drying on the roof of a factory building in Hong Kong. Photo: Antony Dickson /AFP/Getty Images

5. Life in the Balance: sharks are essential for healthy marine ecosystems.

A school of soldierfish hide under table coral while grey reef shark hovers above at Johnston Atoll. Photo: Mark Royer/Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology.

Sharks have been a natural predator in marine communities for 100s of million of years and play an essential role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. As the top predators in these systems they limit the abundance of their prey, which in turn has cascading effects in the food chain. By limiting the population of other species sharks increase the species diversity of the ecosystem. As a result, when sharks are removed or reduced in natural ecosystems through human activities, marine communities can change drastically and cause imbalances among species. For example, along the east coast declines in blacktip sharks from fishing resulted in increases in the shark’s prey, cownose rays, and subsequent decline in bay scallops from ray predation.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.26.16 AM
The removal of marine predators can result in cascading effects through communities. As (a) catch rates of large sharks, such as blacktip sharks declined during research surveys along the east coast of the United States, (b) cownose rays began to increase, leading to eventual declines in (c) catches of North Carolina bay scallops. Source: Heithaus et al., 2008. TREE.

In summary, although shark attacks have been increasing over time, especially the last few decades, this is almost entirely due to growth in human populations and subsequently more people in the water. Humans are the true top predators in the oceans and sharks have much more to fear from us then the very small risk we face of being attacked in the ocean. Sharks play a very important role in natural ecosystems and we need to reduce their take in fisheries and stop the practice of shark finning. Ultimately sharks need global conservation measures in place to protect them from our activities and maintain health ecosystems.


8 responses to “Shark attacks are on the rise: five things you need to know ”

  1. Hi Dr. Abalone,

    Great article on shark attacks. I am originally from Hawaii, but now reside in California, so I do worry about tiger sharks while diving in HI and great whites while diving in CA. Fortunately, I am primarily a bottom hugging tank diver, and feel a little safer than those surfers thrashing around on the surface. My personal opinion on the fairly dramatic rise in HI tiger shark attacks is that there are just more sharks around because of the boom in green sea turtle population.

    October appears to be an especially bad month for CA surfers and kayakers. Since 2010, there have been five great white shark attacks off Vandenberg Air Force Base. Strangely, the sharks seem to get hungry every other year as attacks have occurred in October of 2010, October of 2012, and October of 2014.

    Then again, perhaps the great whites are just SF Giant fans. Since the San Diego Padres shipped that loser Bruce Bochy off to the Bay Area, the Giants have won the World Series in October of 2010, October of 2012, and October of 2014.

    This is probably a good year to bet on the Giants, and to stay on the beach at Vandenberg.


    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree about the Turtle-Shark connection in Hawaii. I mostly dive in Kona and shark sightings have been increasing the last few years and (as you know) so have shark attacks there and on the other islands. The fall is definitely a sharky time in California but I must say I never thought about the Giants connection!

  2. Hi,

    Love this photo of open-mouthed shark and would like to use it on a blog post. Is it possible to obtain permission? If so, please advise!


    • Hi Mike, it’s not mine, just found it on the web. I tried to find the source but it is broadly distributed. If you do locate the photographer please let me know. Thanks

    • Just to be clear: are you referring to the one with the graph? If so, yes you can use it but the underlying photo is not mine (that’s what I was referring to). The other open mouth shark photo has the source listed. – Brian

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