ISAF 2008 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary
(REVISED: FEBRUARY 20, 2009)
The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) investigated 118 alleged incidents of shark-human interaction occurring worldwide in 2008. Upon review, 59 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, a fisher bit while removing a shark from a net, and attacks on spearfishers and those feeding sharks. The 59 incidents not accorded unprovoked status in 2008 included 19 provoked attacks, two case of air/sea disaster, 11 cases of sharks biting marine vessels, seven incidents dismissed as non-shark attacks, two "scavenge" incidents involving post-mortem bites, and 18 cases in which insufficient information was available to determine if an unprovoked shark attack had occurred. In time, as further evidence is gathered, some of the latter may be assigned to one of the alternate categories.
The 2008 yearly total of 59 unprovoked attacks was lower than the 71 unprovoked attacks 2007 and continues a gradual reduction in the yearly number of attacks since reaching an all-time high of 79 in 2000. Even with the recent leveling trend, the number of unprovoked shark attacks has grown at a steady pace over the past century. Overall, the 1990's had the highest attack total of any decade and the first decade of the 21st century will exceed that total. The growth in shark attack numbers does not necessarily mean that there is an increase in the rate of shark attack, rather it most likely is reflective of the ever-increasing amount of time spent in the sea by humans, which increases the odds of interaction between the two affected parties.
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 over-fishing and habitat loss, theoretically reducing the opportunity for these shark-human interactions. However, year-to-year variability in local economic, social, meteorological and oceanographic 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 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 often 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. The ISAF 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 likely would have been missed in the past because they occurred in communication-poor locales or areas lacking ISAF representatives.
Four fatalities resulting from an unprovoked attack occurred in 2008, on par with totals from recent years (the 2001-2008 yearly average was 3.9). The four unprovoked fatalities were recorded from Mexico (2), Australia, and California. The number of serious attacks in 2000-2008, as measured by fatality rate (7.2%), has been lower than that of the decade of the 1990's (12.2%), continuing a twentieth century reduction trend reflective of advances in beach safety practices and medical treatment, and increased public awareness of avoiding potentially dangerous situations.
As in recent years, the majority (71%: 42 attacks) of unprovoked attacks in 2008 occurred in North American waters. The total of 41 attacks in state waters of the United States (including two in Hawaii) was similar to that recorded in 2007 (50), 2006 (39) and 2005 (40), following earlier yearly totals of 2004 (30), 2003 (40), 2002 (47), 2001 (50), and 2000 (53). Elsewhere, attacks occurred in Australia (12), Mexico (3), and Brazil (2), with a single incident reported from the Republic of Seychelles.
Following recent trends, Florida again had most of the unprovoked attacks in the United States. The total of 32 attacks was equal to the 32 reported in 2007. a reversion to comparable yearly levels occurring earlier in the decade prior to a 2004-2006 three-year decline. Additional U.S. attacks were recorded in Hawaii (2), South Carolina (3), North Carolina (3), and California (1). Within Florida, Volusia County had the most incidents (22), the highest total since 2001 (22). This area normally has higher numbers of shark-human interactions as a result of very high aquatic recreational utilization of its attractive waters by both Florida residents and tourists, especially surfers. Other Florida areas having attacks in 2008 were Brevard (4), and Lee, Nassau, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, and St. Johns counties (one each).
Surfers/windsurfers (56.6% of cases with victim activity information) and swimmers/waders (35.8%) and were the recreational user groups most often involved in shark attacks in 2008. Less affected were snorkelers (7.6%).
Despite continued human population growth and increased interest in aquatic recreation, the number of shark attacks has generally leveled off, averaging 63 per year worldwide since reaching a high of 79 in 2000. Likely reasons include:
1. Less sharks in the water. Worldwide over-fishing of elasmobranchs (sharks and their relatives, the skates and rays) has left many populations at critically low levels. Nearshore sharks are the most affected because they are easily captured and are highly sought for their flesh and especially for their fins, which fetch a high sale price and are exported to the Orient, where they are used in shark fin soup, an expensive delicacy. The nearshore area is where humans most often enter the sea..
2. Less people in the water in traditional high shark-human contact areas. Post-9/11 slow-downs in local economies and reticence in some circles to engage in air travel resulted in localized tourism declines in some regions, reducing the number of tourists entering the sea. Meteorological conditions also have played a role - the large number of tropical storms that battered Florida and other U.S. east coast states in 2004, 2005 and 2006 significantly reduced the amount of time spent in the water by humans in these areas. Since Florida annually has more attacks than any other region in the world, the large drops in number of attacks in this region during 2004-2006 is reflected in the worldwide totals in these years.
3. Humans may be getting smarter reducing their interactions with sharks. Media coverage of sharks has been high over the past decade with a plethora of television and print stories detailing the "do's and don't's" involved in reducing shark-human interactions. It is possible that those engaged in marine aquatic recreation (and beach safety personnel charged with their oversight in many areas of the world) are doing a better job of avoiding high risk areas and times, thereby reducing chance meetings between sharks and humans.
If one is actually under attack 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, repeat bangs to the snout may offer temporary restraint, but the result likely become increasingly less effective. If a shark actually bites, we suggest clawing at its eyes and gills, two sensitive areas. One should not act passively if under attack - 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 attack, is a compilation of all known shark attacks. In existence since 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. More than 4,500 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:
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
© 2009 International Shark Attack File|
Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida