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Florida's Still The Shark Attack Capital Of The World, Even If Numbers Remain Low

A blacktip shark in the Atlantic.
A blacktip shark in the Atlantic.

Florida remains the shark attack capital of the world, even if the capital is getting a little less crowded.

Last year, the state recorded just 21 unprovoked attacks, according to the the 2019 International Shark Attack File issued Tuesday by the Florida Museum of Natural History. That’s a slight increase over 2018, when the number of attacks plummeted to 18 and landed well below the five-year average of 32.

The decline coincides with a slowdown around the globe, research director Gavin Naylor said in a statement.

What’s driving the overall decline is not completely clear, he said. Since most attacks involve blacktip sharks, he suggested sharks may be changing migration patterns.

“We know that people aren’t spending less time in the water,” he said.

The file, started in 1958, is the only record of attacks monitored by scientists and had been compiled by University of Florida ichthyologist George Burgess for nearly 30 years until he retired in 2017. The file tracks attacks worldwide, teasing out unprovoked encounters. The annual report often highlights the rareness of attacks to counter inaccurate depictions in film and television.

Worldwide, the file counted 64 attacks, including two fatalities in the Bahamas and east of Madagascar. A California university student died in June after three sharks attacked her while she snorkeled near Rose Island, east of Nassau. Investigators suspect the sharks were provoked, possibly by chum dumped nearby, according to the Associated Press. Dive operators will sometimes dump bloody bait to draw the sharks for tourists.

The global numbers, like Florida's, remain lower than the five-year average.  Although past decades show much lower rates, scientists believes that largely due to a lack of reporting or poor record keeping. The numbers more than doubled after Burgess took over.

Last year's slight increase off Florida's warm waters could indicate a change in shark feeding patterns since East Coast anglers have increasingly reported sharks trailing fishing boats, Naylor said. As fish populations decline, sharks could be looking for an easy meal, he said.

Volusia County led the state, with nine attacks. Duval County had five, with two in Brevard County and one each in Broward, Martin, Nassau, Palm Beach and St. Johns counties.

Outside Florida, Hawaii had three times as many attacks with nine. Three were carried about by the mysterious, deep ocean cookiecutter shark, which has only been blamed for two previous attacks. The small shark is considered more of a parasite than a maneater because it tends to chisel out meat from its larger prey without killing.

“They can look pretty pathetic, like a lazy sausage,” Naylor said, “but they can do a lot of damage.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.