Awareness and Education are Key
Tips on sharing state waters with one of the earth’s oldest predators.
From The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
Who will ever forget the story of an 8 year-old boy trying to escape the grips of a 7-foot bull shark? Young Jessie Arbogast had been making national headlines ever since his attack July of 2004 near Pensacola.
For months to follow shark attacks were making news, gaining lots of publicity and raising public concern. Time magazine even dubbed That summer: “Summer of the Shark” on the cover of their July 30, 2005 issue. In reality though there were less shark attacks in Florida waters in 2001 than in the previous year.
Experts say while there are no guaranteed ways to avoid shark attacks, understanding their overall make-up and behavior could help you make better decisions on when and where to swim.
“It’s very important for people who visit Florida waters to be aware of their surroundings, understand the relative risks and be educated on various shark issues such as behavior, biology and fisheries,” said Brent Winner, scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation’s (FWC) Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI).
Sharks and their ancestors have been roaming Florida waters for more than 400 millions years. Over this time span, the role of the shark in its environment has changed very little. As top predator in most marine ecosystems, they fill a very important role in maintaining balance within each ecosystem they inhabit.
Florida’s shark population is very diverse and includes species that range in size from only a few feet to more than 40 feet in total length. Most of these species feed on fishes or marine invertebrates, and some even feed on plankton, but none see man as a food source. Despite the media’s coverage of last year’s events, sharks do not hunt people. Most shark attacks are thought by experts to be cases of mistaken identity, which explains why nearly all shark attacks that occur in Florida waters are of a bite-and-release nature. In fact, the percentage of fatal shark attacks has dramatically decreased worldwide from a peak of 50% in the 1920s to only 10% in recent years. Furthermore, shark attacks in Florida are fatal only 1% of the time, 10 times less than the current worldwide average.
Millions of tourists and residents will visit Florida’s beaches and waterways this year, and these beaches and waterways will more than likely contain sharks. Many shark species are common in Florida’s nearshore waters and bays. In fact, more than 13 species of shark use these areas as nursery grounds for their pups. Scientific data show that many shark species migrate in and out of Florida’s waters each year. These migrations are often linked to temperature and the presence of prey such as mullet, sardines, menhaden, and other species of baitfish. Migrating sharks will either move in an inshore-offshore manner or along latitudinal gradients (e.g., north-south). In Florida, sharks typically move inshore and north in the spring and summer, and offshore and south in fall and winter months. This pattern explains why shark activity is at its peak in Florida waters during April through October, which coincidentally, is also the time period that humans are more likely to be in the water. And yet shark attacks still remain very rare. Humans are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning in Florida than to be bitten by a shark. Experts agree that the increase in the number of shark attacks in recent years is more of a factor of an increase in human visitors than an increase in shark populations or activity.
The fact remains that humans are much more of a danger to sharks than vice versa. On average, fewer than 10 people die from shark attacks each year worldwide, whereas the world’s fisheries kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually. The general biology and life history of most shark species make them extremely vulnerable to over-fishing, which is why federal and state regulations are in place to protect this valuable resource. Some data show that shark populations are at 20 –30% of the level they were just 25 years ago. We all need to become more aware of and educated about sharks and the issues surrounding them to ensure not only our own safety but also the continued existence of these fascinating fishes.