Fatal Shark Attacks See Spike in 2011

A great white shark in Mexico.
Humans are far deadlier to sharks than they are to us. (Image credit: Jim Agronick, Shutterstock)

The numbers are in, and 2011 continued the downward trend in shark attacks in the United States. That's the good news. The bad news: Worldwide shark-related deaths were higher than they've been in nearly two decades, according to the report released today (Feb. 7).   

The 2011 spike in shark-attack fatalities — all of which occurred outside of the United States — suggests tourists are venturing to more remote places, said ichthyologist George Burgess, director of the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File, which released the shark-attack numbers.

"We had a number of fatalities in essentially out-of-the-way places, where there's not the same quantity and quality of medical attention readily available," Burgess, of the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in a statement. "They also don't have histories of shark attacks in these regions, so there are not contingency plans in effect like there are in places such as Florida." [Infographic: Shark Attack Science]

Shark attack numbers

The report tallied 75 global shark attacks, a number closely matching the decade average. Twenty-nine attacks occurred in the United States, with 11 of those from Florida. Other countries with multiple shark attacks included: 11 in Australia; five in South Africa; four in Reunion; three each in Mexico and Russia; and two each in the Seychelles and Brazil.

As expected, surfers and others involved in board sports took the brunt of the attacks, accounting for 60 percent of unprovoked shark attacks, swimmers 35 percent and divers about 5 percent. 

"It's more than coincidence that we've had this drop over this last decade," Burgess said. Though some may argue there are fewer sharks out there, Burgess said, "populations have begun a slow recovery. By contrast, the number of attacks in the United States and Florida suggests there's been a reduced use of these waters."

Even so, the global shark-attack fatalities, which reached 16 percent in 2011, doubled the number of fatalities in 2010. In fact, the global fatality rate for the last decade has averaged just under 7 percent.

And these fatalities occurred in far-out places, including: Australia (three fatalities), Reunion (two), the Seychelles (two) and South Africa (two), with one each in Costa Rica, Kenya and New Caledonia. Excluding the United States, which showed no shark-related fatalities, the global fatality rate would have averaged at 25 percent last year.

Who's killing who?

"It's a good news/bad news situation," Burgess said. "From the U.S. perspective, things have never been better, our attack and fatality rates continue to decline. But if it's a reflection of the downturn in the economy, it might suggest that other areas have made a real push to get into the tourism market.”

Burgess suggests creating emergency plans for these newer tourism areas; this spring, he will help develop a response plan in Reunion Island.

Though shark attacks, and associated human fatalities, make splashy headlines, Burgess noted people are a much bigger threat to sharks than the other way around.

"We're killing 30 [million] to 70 million sharks per year in fisheries — who's killing who?" Burgess said. "The reality is that the sea is actually a pretty benign environment, or else we'd be measuring injuries in the thousands or millions per year."

According to a 2010 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one-third of the sharks, rays and skates on Earth are threatened with extinction.

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Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.