ISAF 2015 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary
The International Shark Attack File investigated 164 incidents of alleged shark-human interaction occurring worldwide in 2015. Upon review, 98 of these incidents represented confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks on humans. "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. 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 other incidents involving provocation by humans 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 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. The 66 incidents not accorded unprovoked status in 2015 included 36 provoked attacks, 14 interactions involving a shark biting a motorized or non-motorized vessel ("boat attack"), one case involving sinking ships or downed aircraft ("air-sea disaster"), one incident involving post-mortem bites ("scavenge"), and seven cases in which data was too scanty to determine if an shark attack occurred ("insufficient evidence"). Eight incidents were regarded as not involving a shark, including two cases attributed to stingrays and three single cases involving a bluefish, an eel, and an unknown species of fish. Three other cases were determined as involving abiotic injuries.
The 2015 yearly total of 98 unprovoked attacks was the highest on record, surpassing the previous high of 88 recorded in the year 2000. [Parenthetically, the 2015 fatality rate was about half (six deaths: 6.1%) of that in 2000 (11 deaths: 12.5%)]. The numerical growth in human-shark interactions does not necessarily mean there is an increase in the rate of shark attacks; rather, it most likely is a function of the growing human population. The actual rate of attack likely is declining owing to the ever-increasing amount of time spent in the sea by humans.
The number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year is directly correlated with the amount of time humans spend in the sea. As 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 more attacks each year than the previous year because more people are in the water. Shark populations are actually declining or holding at greatly reduced levels in many areas of the world as a result of over-fishing and habitat loss, theoretically reducing the opportunity for these shark-human interactions. However, year-to-year variability in local meteorological, oceanographic, and socio-economic conditions also significantly influences 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 bites up or down must be viewed with caution. Such marked yearly fluctuations in shark-human interactions, be they regional or international in scope, are not unusual. 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 highly variable year-to-year numbers, be they high or low.
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 improved greatly over past three decades, leading to further increases in the number of recorded interactions. Transfer of the ISAF to the Florida Museum of Natural History in 1988 resulted in greatly expanding international coverage of attack incidents and a consequent jump in the number of documented attacks. In the early 1990s, the ISAF developed 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 (Internet search engines, email, mobile phones, texting, social media), 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 shark-human incidents in recent years. The ISAF web pages, which include electronic copies of the Attack Questionnaire in four languages as well as a wide range of statistics and educational material about sharks, comprises perhaps the most highly accessed shark website on the Internet. Our strong web presence, including a Facebook page, regularly results in the receipt of unsolicited documentation of shark attacks. Many of these attacks likely would have been missed in the past because they occurred in communication-poor locales or areas lacking ISAF representatives.
Following long-term trends, North American waters had the most [75: 76.5%] unprovoked attacks in 2015. The total of 59 unprovoked attacks in the United States (including seven in non-North American Hawaii) set a U.S. standard, surpassing previous highs of 53 achieved in 2012 and 2000 and the 2014 total of 52. There were no fatalities in North American waters and the single U.S. fatality occurred in Hawaii. Elsewhere, multiple unprovoked attacks occurred in Australia , South Africa , and Reunion , the Canary  and Galapagos  islands, with single incidents reported from the Bahama Islands, Brazil, Egypt, New Caledonia, and Thailand. Australia's total of 18 unprovoked attacks was its highest total since 2009 (22). Twelve attacks occurred in New South Wales, two in Western Australia, two in Queensland, and single incidents in South Australia and Victoria; the single fatality occurred in New South Wales (see also Australian 2015 Shark Attack Summary).
South Africa also had a slightly higher contact year, its eight attacks the highest number since eight were recorded in 2010; the total, however, fell well below its all-time high of 17 in 1998. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in an area that averaged more than two a year over the previous six years. To put those totals in context, within the past decade South Africa has had years with as many as four fatalities (2009) but also a year (2008) in which not a single attack occurred, again underscoring the variable nature of the phenomenon in any given year and location.
As has been the norm for decades, Florida had most (51%) of the unprovoked attacks in the United States and 30.6% of the world total. The total of 30 Florida bites was higher than the 2014 total of 23 but did not approach the record high of 37 that occurred in 2000. Also following recent trends, Brevard County  and Volusia County  had the largest numbers in the state. The higher number of encounters in these two adjacent central-east coast counties is attributable to high aquatic recreational utilization of the area’s long and attractive beaches and waters by both Florida residents and tourists, including large numbers of surfers, and to the rich nature of its marine fauna. Other Florida counties having bites were Duval (4), Palm Beach and St. Johns (2 each), and Broward, Collier, Indian River, Martin, Miami-Dade, Nassau, and St. Lucie (1 each). Additional U.S. attacks were recorded in North and South Carolina (8 each), Hawaii (7), and California and Texas (2 each), with single bites reported from Mississippi and New York. The Carolina totals were a bit high for those regions and were notable in that most occurred over a relatively short period of time.
Significantly, worldwide there were only six fatalities (producing a 6.1% fatality rate) resulting from unprovoked attacks (two in Reunion and single incidents in Australia, New Caledonia, Hawaii, and Egypt). The six attacks matched the annual average of the previous decade. This total is remarkably low given the billions of human-hours spent in the water each year. The long-term trend in fatality rates has been one of constant reduction over the past 11+ decades, reflective of advances in beach safety practices and medical treatment, and increased public awareness of avoiding potentially dangerous situations. The fatality rate in the U.S. in 2014 was notably lower (1.7%) than in the rest of the world (12.8%), likely a function of greater safety and medical capacity in areas of the U.S. where shark attacks historically occur. This highlights the need for increasing efforts to improve beach safety, including educating the public about the risk of sharks, providing well-trained lifeguards, and advancing emergency medical care and medical capabilities in many areas of the world. The continued occurrence of shark-related fatalities in Reunion (seven deaths in five years, 39% fatality rate) is worrisome and suggests that appropriate management of that situation is still wanting.
Surfers and others participating in board sports were most often (49% of cases) involved in 2015 incidents. Less affected recreational user groups included swimmers/waders (42%) and snorkelers (9%); notably there were no attacks on SCUBA divers in 2015. Surfers have been the most-affected user group in recent decades, the probable result of the large amount of time spent by people engaged in a provocative activity (kicking of feet, splashing of hands, and "wipeouts") in an area commonly frequented by sharks, the surf zone.
If one is attacked by a shark, we advise a proactive response. Hitting a shark on the nose, ideally with an inanimate object, usually results in the shark temporarily curtailing its attack. One should try to get out of the water at this time. If this is not possible, repeated blows to the snout may offer a temporary reprieve, but the result is likely to become increasingly less effective. If a shark actually bites, we suggest clawing at its eyes and gill openings, two sensitive areas. One should not act passively if under attack as sharks respect size and power. For additional safety tips, see:
The International Shark Attack File, internationally recognized as the definitive source of scientifically accurate information on shark attacks, is a compilation of investigations of all known shark attacks. Established in 1958, it is administered by the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida under the auspices of the American Elasmobranch Society, the world's foremost international organization of scientists studying sharks, skates, and rays. The database contains information on more than 5,700 individual investigations 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 regularly study investigations housed in the ISAF. Access to ISAF data is granted on a case-by-case basis. Direct open access by the press and general public is prohibited since much of the 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 curator, George H. Burgess. For additional information on sharks and shark attack, visit the Florida Museum of Natural History's shark research website, the ISAF Facebook page, and/or the ISAF Twitter page at:
George H. Burgess
Curator, International Shark Attack File
Florida Program for Shark Research
Florida Museum of Natural History
University of Florida
P O Box 117800
Gainesville, FL 32611
© International Shark Attack File
Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida