The History of the International Shark Attack File
The United States Navy has traditionally had more than a passing interest in shark attack since its personnel, particularly in wartime, faces a greater risk of attack than others. Memories of the many documented attacks on servicemen during World War II and the realization that an effective repellent was still unavailable prompted the Office of Naval Research to initiate funding of a shark-related research program in 1958. A conference was held early in 1958 in New Orleans in order to plan a research strategy for development of an effective repellent. Participants agreed that much basic research was required before a repellent could realistically be discovered and a working group of shark researchers was formalized. The Shark Research Panel, consisting of Perry W. Gilbert (chairman), Sidney R. Galler, John R. Olive, Leonard P. Schultz, Stewart Springer, and later Albert L. Tester and H. David Baldridge, remained active until 1970. The Panel initiated formation of the Shark Attack File, the first such attempt to comprehensively document attacks on a global, historical basis.
The Shark Attack File was physically housed at the Smithsonian Institution under the supervision of Schultz and a similar, smaller file was maintained by Gilbert at Cornell University. Attempts were made to collect data on all historical shark attacks and a network of reporters was established to document new attacks as they occurred. Gilbert was able to secure institutional funding that provided access to news clipping services. A two-page attack reporting form was developed by the Panel and made available to File cooperators. The File soon grew to over 1000 attacks.
The first attempt to synthesize the File's data was made by Schultz in 1963. His analysis, Attacks by sharks as related to activities of man, and accompanying appendix, A list of shark attacks for the world (coauthored by Marilyn H. Malin), appeared in Sharks and Survival, the first of two Gilbert-edited volumes emanating from the Navy's support of shark research. Schultz realized, however, that such manual analyses were far too time-consuming and that more sophisticated methods were required. In 1967 the Panel agreed that a computerized statistical analysis was needed and, with U.S. Navy funding, Baldridge produced his classic 1974 analysis entitled Shark attack: a program of data reduction and analysis.
Naval support of the File ceased in 1968. Efforts made by Baldridge and Gilbert to secure continued fiscal support from traditional funding sources were unsuccessful, and the File later was transferred from the Mote Marine Laboratory, where it had been sent for Baldridge's analyses, to the University of Rhode Island. The File continued to grow under the care of John McAniff of the National Undersea Safety Program, but regrettably funding was equally lacking in its new home despite McAniff's best efforts. The File was transferred to the Florida Museum of Natural History in 1988 where, under the auspices of the American Elasmobranch Society, it is now curated by George H. Burgess and Andrew Piercy.
The File is receiving enthusiastic support from members of the Society, an international organization of scientists actively engaged in the studies of sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras. We continue to document attack records from the somewhat incomplete 1968-1988 period as well as investigate new ones. Through the cooperation of the organization's many worldwide members the File is now growing greatly, with large data bases from Australia, California, Hawaii and South Africa added or soon to be integrated into the system. Baldridge's reduced data, formerly stored on long-lost computer punch cards, were made available to the File and have been transferred from a computer print-out into a Microsoft Access relational database. We welcome the unsolicited documentation of any attack from all time periods. Newly acquired data will be added as it appears, and periodic analyses of the data base will be performed to determine trends in local and worldwide attacks. We currently are working on a revision of Baldridge's synthetic analysis of worldwide attacks. The data base is also made available to qualified biologists and physicians who wish to address specific questions regarding shark attack. Since the File contains much information that is considered privileged, such as medical reports, autopsies, and personal interviews, access is carefully guarded by a panel of AES shark researchers who must approve each request on a case-by-case basis. Inqueries from the media and general public are answered by the ISAF staff, but actual access to the files is otherwise limited to scientists.
The International Shark Attack File is very interested in updating and refining its database. If you know about an attack, particularly from the 1968-1988 period, please fill out and submit our Shark Attack Questionnaire, or forward documentation or contact the file at the following address:
George H. Burgess
Director, International Shark Attack File
Florida Museum of Natural History
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611 U.S.A
[Reprinted, with emendations, from: Burgess, G.H. 1991. Shark attack and the International Shark Attack File, pp. 101-105. In: Gruber, S.H. (ed.). 1990. Discovering Sharks, American Littoral Society, Highlands, New Jersey]
© International Shark Attack File
Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida