ISAF 2016 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary

Carcharhinus limbatus, blacktip shark

Blacktip shark by Doug Perrine

The International Shark Attack File investigated 150 incidents of alleged shark-human interaction occurring worldwide in 2016.  Upon review, 81 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 69 incidents not accorded unprovoked status in 2016 included 37 provoked attacks, 12 interactions involving a shark biting a motorized or non-motorized vessel ("boat attack”), one incident involving post-mortem bites ("scavenge"), and 12 cases in which data was too scanty at this time to determine if a shark attack occurred ("insufficient evidence").  Seven incidents were regarded as not involving a shark, including one case attributed to an eel and one attributed to a barracuda.  The five other cases were determined as involving abiotic injuries.

The 2016 yearly total of 81 unprovoked attacks was on par with our most recent five-year (2011-2015) average of 82 incidents annually.  By contrast, the 98 unprovoked incidents in the previous reporting year, 2015, was the highest yearly total on record.  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 and social media presence 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, continental North American waters had the most [43: 53.1% of world total] unprovoked attacks in 2016.  The total of 53 (65.4 of world total) unprovoked attacks in the United States (including ten in non-North American Hawaii) is a decline from the record high year of 2015, which saw 59 unprovoked attacks.  There were no fatalities in U.S. and North American waters.

Elsewhere, multiple unprovoked attacks occurred in Australia [15], New Caledonia [4], and Indonesia [2], and single incidents were reported from the Bahama Islands, Brazil, Japan, La Reunion, South Africa, Spain, and Sri Lanka.

Australia's total of 15 unprovoked attacks was a bit higher than the recent five year (2011-2015), average of 13.2 per year, but lower than recent highs of 18 in 2015 and 22 in 2009.  Seven attacks occurred in New South Wales, four in Western Australia, two in Queensland, and single incidents were reported from Tasmania and Victoria (see also Australian 2016 Shark Attack Summary).  The two fatalities (both in Western Australia) were a bit lower than the country’s recent annual rate of 2.8 per year.

South Africa had but a single unprovoked, non-fatal case this year, making it the lowest contact year recorded since 2008 when no incidents occurred.  To put this in context, within the past five years (2011-2015) South Africa has averaged 4.8 incidents and 1.4 deaths per year with annual highs of eight attacks and three deaths in a year, again underscoring the variable nature of the phenomenon in any given year and locale.

As has been the norm for decades, Florida proportionately had most (60.4%) of the unprovoked attacks in the United States and the largest portion (39.5%) of the world’s total; both percentages higher than recent (2011-2015) averages of 49.2%, and 29.0% respectively.  The total of 32 Florida bites was a bit higher than the 2015 total of 30 and well above the recent five-year average of 23.8 (which included a recent record low of 11 in 2011), but did not approach the record high of 37 that occurred in 2000.  Also following recent trends, Volusia County had the largest number (15) of unprovoked incidents in the state.  The number of bites was notably higher than the its recent five-year average of eight attacks per annum but much lower than the record high of 22 such incidents in 2001.  The higher number of encounters in this central-east coast county 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), Brevard (3), St. Johns (3), Indian River (2), and Flagler, Lee, Palm Beach, Pinellas, and St. Lucie (1 each).  Outside of Florida, U.S. attacks were recorded in Hawaii (10), California (4), North Carolina (3), and South Carolina (2), with single reports in Texas and Oregon.  Hawaii and California totals were comparable the recent five year averages of eight and five per year, respectively.

Significantly, worldwide there were only four fatalities resulting from unprovoked attacks, producing an uncommonly low fatality rate (4.9%). In addition to the two deaths in Australia, there were two fatalities in New Caledonia.  On average there were eight fatalities per year worldwide in the 2011-2015 period and six deaths per annum over the past decade.  These totals are 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.  Notably, the U.S. had zero fatalities in 2016, likely in part 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.

Surfers and others participating in board sports were most often (58% of cases) involved in 2016 incidents.  Less affected recreational user groups included swimmers/waders (32.1%), those using floatation gear (3.7%), and snorkelers (4.9%); notably there was only one attack on SCUBA divers in 2016.  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 6,000 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
gburgess@flmnh.ufl.edu
(352) 392-2360
FAX 352-392-7158

Lindsay French
Database Manager, International Shark Attack File
Florida Program for Shark Research
Florida Museum of Natural History
University of Florida
P O Box 117800
Gainesville, FL 32611
lfrench@flmnh.ufl.edu
(352) 392-2360
FAX 352-392-7158

© International Shark Attack File
Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida