Tell a Brazilian you’re hitting the beach in Recife, where the US and Germany are facing off in a World Cup match today, and they’ll probably tell you to stay out of the water. They know—and worry that World Cup tourists don’t—about the proliferation of shark attacks at city beaches such as Boa Viagem, where high-rise apartment buildings overlook the umbrella-spotted sand and turquoise water.
Although Recife’s state of Pernambuco has just a tiny—albeit beautiful—fraction of Brazil’s 5,000 mile-coastline, it has been home to more than half of Brazil’s shark attacks since 1931.
A shark attacked one woman who was wading in just three feet of water—taking nearly her entire buttocks, but not her life. A 23-year old surfer lost both his hands. Last year, an 18-year-old girl was struggling to keep her head above the water at Boa Viagem when a shark bit her left leg; she was eventually dragged to shore, but didn’t survive. Surfing in Recife has been banned, and the lifeguards of Boa Viagem swim their training laps in a pool.
The usual reason for an increase in shark attacks is a simple increase in probability: more people in the water. But in Recife, something more is afoot. The map above, from the University of Florida, counts 55 total shark attacks in Pernambuco since 1931; state monitoring agencies count closer to sixty.
Nearly all of those attacks occurred after the early 1990s, when the Port of Suape, then a relatively new construction just twelve miles south of Boa Viagem, began to attract large ships. The construction and this ship traffic disrupted two significant—and dangerous—shark populations in the waters surrounding Recife: tiger sharks and bull sharks. The trails of garbage left behind by shipping vessels en route to the port attract these migratory creatures, drawing them dangerously close to popular beaches.
Tiger sharks, which are second only to Great Whites when it comes to danger to humans, are known for their aggressive, undiscriminating eating habits.
“The tiger shark has a reputation as an animal that will eat almost anything,” reports Craig Nickle at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “The tiger shark’s highly serrated teeth combined with the saw-like action from shaking the head back and forth allows it to tear chunks from much larger marine animals.” (That surfer who lost his hands to a bull shark told the BBC he considered himself lucky it wasn’t a tiger.)
Bull sharks are not migratory, tend to live near busy tropical shorelines, and they can survive in both salt and freshwater. According to Alexandre Carvalho, president of the Oceanic Institute of Pernambuco, the estuary now occupied by the Suape Port used to be an important breeding ground for the bull sharks surrounding Recife (link in Portuguese). Unable to reach it, Carvalho says the sharks relocated to the mouth of the Jabotoatão River, which leads right to the beaches of Recife.
The powers behind Suape Port deny environmental disruption, but in Recife, it’s taken as a given that the port’s construction had a role in creating the shark problem. Even the answers to “frequently asked questions” (links in Portuguese) distributed by the state of Pernambuco offer the following reasons for frequent shark attacks: “Large construction projects in the coastal region, local environmental degradation, primarily of landfill mangrove areas and pollution.”