ISAF 2003 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary
The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) investigated 100 alleged incidents of shark-human interaction occurring worldwide in 2003. Upon review, 55 of these incidents represented confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attack on humans. "Unprovoked attacks" are defined as incidents where an attack on a live human by a shark occurs in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark. Incidents involving sharks and divers in public aquaria or research holding-pens, shark-inflicted scavenge damage to already dead humans (most often drowning victims), attacks on boats, and provoked incidents occurring in or out of the water are not considered unprovoked attacks. "Provoked attacks" usually occur when a human initiates physical contact with a shark, e.g. a diver bit after grabbing a shark or a fisher bit while removing a shark from a net. The 45 incidents not accorded unprovoked status in 2003 included 18 provoked attacks, nine cases of sharks biting marine vessels, four incidents dismissed as non-attacks, one scavenge, one air/sea disaster, and 12 in which insufficient information was available to determine if shark attack was involved.
The yearly total of 55 unprovoked attacks was lower than the 63 unprovoked attacks recorded in the year 2002, 68 recorded in 2001, and 79 reported in 2000. Despite the recent declines, the number of unprovoked shark attacks has grown at a steady rate over the past century
. Overall, the 1990's had the highest attack total (514) of any decade, and the 2000-2003 totals continue that upward trend.
The number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year is directly correlated to the amount of time humans spent in the sea. As the world population continues its upsurge and interest in aquatic recreation concurrently rises, we realistically should expect increases in the number of shark attacks and other aquatic recreation-related injuries. If shark populations remain the same or increase in size, one might predict that there should be more attacks each year than in the previous year because more people are in the water. Shark populations, by contrast, actually are declining at a serious rate or are holding at greatly reduced levels in many areas of the world as a result of overfishing, theoretically reducing the opportunity for these shark-human interactions. However, year-to-year variability in local economic, social, meteorological and oceanographic conditions also significantly influence the local abundance of sharks and humans in the water and, therefore, the odds of encountering one another. As a result, short-term trends in the number of shark attacks - up or down - must be viewed with caution. Thus, the ISAF prefers to view trends over longer periods of time (e.g., by decade) rather than trying to assign too much significance to high year-to-year variability.
In addition to increases in the number of hours spent in the water by humans, the ISAF's efficiency in discovering and
investigating attacks has increased greatly over the past decade, leading to further increases in attack number. Transfer
of the ISAF to the Florida Museum of Natural History in 1988 resulted in greatly expanded international coverage of attack
incidents and a consequent jump in the number of documented attacks. In the early 1990's the ISAF was able to develop
important cooperative relationships with many Florida beach safety organizations and medical facilities, leading to
increased documentation of attacks from a region that is a world leader in aquatic recreation. Fundamental advances
in electronic communication (the Internet and email), a greatly expanded network of global ISAF scientific observers,
and a rise in interest in sharks throughout the world spawned in part by increased media attention given to sharks have
promoted more complete documentation of attack incidents in recent years. ISAF's web pages
], which include electronic copies of the Attack Questionnaire in four languages as well as a plethora of statistics and educational material about sharks, comprise the most highly accessed shark site on the Internet. Our strong web presence regularly results in the receipt of unsolicited documentation of shark attacks. Many of these attacks would have been missed in the past because they occurred in communication-poor locales or areas lacking an ISAF representative.
Four fatalities occurred in 2003, a total similar to the three recorded in 2002 and four reported in 2001, but much lower than the 11 fatalities in 2000. The 7% fatality rate was significantly lower than the 1990's decadal average of 13%. Single fatalities occurred in Australia, California, Fiji and South Africa.
As in recent years, the majority (65%: 36 attacks) of incidents occurred in North American waters, including 35 from the continental United States and one in the Virgin Islands. The 41 attacks in United States territorial waters (including incidents in Hawaii, the Virgin Islands and Johnson Atoll) were less than the 2002 (47), 2001 (50) and 2000 (54) yearly figures
. Elsewhere, attacks occurred in Australia (6), Brazil (2), South Africa (2), Fiji (1), India (1), Madagascar (1), and Venezuela (1).
Following recent trends, Florida (31) had most of the unprovoked attacks in the United States. This total also was somewhat lower than the 2000-2002 average of 33.3 (based on 29 in 2002, 34 in 2001, and 37 in 2000).
Additional U.S. attacks were recorded in Hawaii (4), South Carolina (3), California (1), the Virgin Islands (1), and Johnson Atoll (1). Within Florida, Volusia County had the most (14) incidents (down from 18 in 2002 and 22 in 2001), which largely is attributable to very high aquatic recreational utilization of its attractive waters by Florida residents and tourists, especially surfers. Other Florida counties having attacks in 2003 were Brevard (8), St. Johns (3), Martin (2), Palm Beach (2), Miami-Dade (1), and St. Lucie (1).
Surfers/windsurfers (29 incidents: 54% of cases with victim activity information) were the recreational user groups most often subjected to shark attack in 2003. Other attacks involved swimmers/waders (20: 38%), and divers/snorkelers (3: 6%). One attack (2%) occurred during a water entry event.
The year 2003 attack totals, both internationally and nationally, were lower than yearly totals in 2002, 2001 and 2000, continuing a trend of decline in shark-human interactions and underscoring the scientific view that the events of mid-2001 (the "Summer of the Shark," as coined by some in the media) were largely overstated. More importantly, the number of serious attacks in 2003, 2002 and 2001, as measured by fatality rate (7%), was half that in 2000 (14%) and in the decade of the 1990's (13%). The declines in attack numbers and fatalities during the past three years may reflect the worldwide decline in shark populations, a downturn in the economy which resulted in declines in aquatic recreation, and increased vigilance by those entering the sea.
The International Shark Attack File, internationally recognized as the definitive source of scientifically accurate information on shark attack, is a compilation of all known shark attacks. In existence since 1958, it is administered by the American Elasmobranch Society, the world's foremost international organization of scientists studying sharks, skates and rays, and the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. More than 3,700 individual investigations are currently housed in the ISAF, covering the period from the mid-1500's to present. Many of the data in the ISAF originate from the voluntary submissions of numerous cooperating scientists who serve worldwide as regional observers. Data submitted to the ISAF is screened, coded and computerized. Hard copy documentation, including original interviews and notes, press clippings, photographs, audio/video tapes, and medical/autopsy reports, is permanently archived. Biological researchers and research physicians study investigations housed in the ISAF. Access to ISAF data is granted only after careful screening on a case-by-case basis. Direct access by the press and general public is prohibited since much data, including medical records, is sensitive in nature and is given in confidence. Requests for summary information and non-privileged data are made to the ISAF director, George H. Burgess.
For additional information on sharks and shark attack, visit the Florida Museum of Natural History's shark
research web site at: http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/sharks.htm
George H. Burgess
Director, International Shark Attack File
Florida Program for Shark Research
Florida Museum of Natural History
University of Florida
P O Box 117800
Gainesville, FL 32611