Fatal shark attacks are tragic. They’re also very rare

There were 88 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks around the world in 2017.
There were 88 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks around the world in 2017.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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Yesterday (Sept. 15) a boogie boarder at Cape Cod suffered the first fatal shark attack (paywall) in Massachusetts since 1936, and the first in the US since 2015.

While tragic, shark attacks are very rare, and fatal encounters are even rarer. According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) compiled by the Florida Museum, in 2017 there were 88 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks in the world, resulting in five fatalities.

The museum makes a careful distinction between unprovoked attacks and those that are the result of humans intentionally interacting with sharks:

“Unprovoked attacks” are defined as incidents where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark.

“Provoked attacks” occur when a human initiates physical contact with a shark, e.g. a diver is bitten after grabbing a shark, attacks on spearfishers and those feeding sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net, etc.

More shark attacks occur in Florida than anywhere else, about 35% of the world total most years. That reflects the large number of swimmers who frequent the state’s sandy beaches and warm water, notes the ISAF, pointing out that “one has a far greater chance of drowning than dying by shark attack.” Many of these incidents are not Jaws-style attacks. ”Most of them are better called bites than attacks,” ISAF curator George Burgess told Florida newspaper the Sun-Sentinel in 2014. “They’re the equivalent of dog bites.”

Worldwide, shark attacks are on the rise, and environmental factors like the warm waters of El Niño can influence the numbers and areas in which sharks and swimmers come in contact. The increase over time, though, has less to do with sharks and more to do with the number of humans in the water. The ISAF point out that as beach attendance rises, so do attacks.