American beachgoers and saltwater anglers have long had a wary relationship with sharks. Last summer’s tragedy involving two children playing in waste-deep water just of North Carolina’s shores has further fueled recent assertions that shark attacks are getting worse, leaving some shark anglers calling for a culling of the aquatic herd.
The uncanny circumstances surrounding the June 15th shark attacks just outside of Oak Island, North Carolina has drawn international attention and speculation from scientists and laymen alike as to the nature of the attacks, and what we should be doing to prevent them in the future. It was on this day that not one, but two shark attacks occurred off North Carolina’s beaches, some two miles and 90 minutes apart from one another.
The attacks left two children seriously injured, a town scarred, and a world wondering what was going on just below the surface. What was causing the recent spike in shark attacks? Were sharks becoming more aggressive? And is there anything the fishing community can do about it?
Why Do Sharks Attack People?
Whenever news breaks of a shark attack, the most common first question is probably, “Why did this happen?” To answer this question, it’s important to acknowledge several known facts about shark attacks. The majority of unprovoked shark attacks result in a single bite, and while some of these bites lead to devastating injuries, amputations, and–on rare occasions–loss of life, the simple fact that most shark encounters follow a bite-and-flight pattern offers some insight into the motives behind these maulings.
Sharks are oceanic predators, and while many predatory species have undergone countless evolutionary changes over the millennia to become better hunters, sharks have changed very little. They are the ocean’s most efficient killing machines, sitting at the top of the food chain while deploying the tried-and-true methods that have kept them fed for millions of years.
The way sharks are forced to hunt can be harmful to unsuspecting ocean dwellers. Whereas a Yellowstone grizzly bear might use its hands to inspect a potential meal such as a honeycomb, picnic basket or the trashcan du jour, sharks don’t have that luxury. Instead, sharks use their mouths to determine whether or not an object is meal worthy–an inspection process that puts a bit of a strain on shark/human relations.
The simple truth, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is that shark attacks are generally a case of mistaken identity, part of a combination of unfortunate coincidences such as bad timing and oceanic conditions that result in sharks coming in contact with humans on a higher-than-normal level.
Because sharks are also migratory animals, it can be difficult to predict when and where the highest risks for shark attacks may occur. By the time local officials have time to react to an attack via beach closures, flyovers and extensive patrols, sharks have, in many cases, moved on to another location.
Still, preventive measures can be taken. Officials in Orange County, California decided to take an innovative approach to summer shark attacks last year by deploying drones to patrol the Seal Beach coastline in search of predatory threats in the water. But because the typical drone battery life allows for just 10 to 15 minutes of airtime before returning to shore, constant shoreline surveying has yet to become a practical solution.
Shark Attack Numbers, Explained
There’s simply no denying that shark attacks are on the rise, and have been for quite some time. According to the International Shark Attack File, 2014 logged 72 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide for the year. While this number was lower than the number logged for 2013 (75 unprovoked attacks), unprovoked shark attacks have been steadily on the rise when evaluated decade-over-decade since 1900.
While some experts point to climate change or a shift in ecology as reasons for increasing shark interactions with humans, there doesn’t seem to be any single factor leading to more shark attacks. Instead, each attack appears to be a mixture of several elements coming together in a series of unfortunate events.
Take the summer of 2015 in North Carolina, for example. Unusually high summer temps breaking triple digits most likely led to more time being spent in the water by saltwater patrons, which in turn increases the probability of an interaction when compared to, say, a breezy 75-degree afternoon that sees fewer beachgoers dipping their toes in the surf.
There has also been chatter throughout the fishing community that federal protections against sharks are finally starting to kick in, and we’re seeing the results via an increase in interactions. The 2015 coastal shark survey conducted by the NOAA revealed that shark populations are improving on the U.S. East Coast, kicking off a conversation amongst anglers as to whether or not certain shark fishing regulations should be eased.
For example, two of the deadliest sharks to humans–White Sharks (or Great Whites) and Tiger sharks–are prohibited from harvest in Florida, the state holding the record for the most unprovoked shark attacks on humans for the last 15 years. (It’s important to note that of the 176 shark attacks to occur in Volusia County, Florida since the year 2000, none have been fatal.)
Bull sharks complete the trifecta of the three most dangerous sharks to humans, but unlike their close cousins, it is legal to land a Bull off the coast of Florida, so long as the animal meets the 54-inch minimum. So is it time to ease fishing restrictions on these apex predators and let saltwater anglers cull the herd?
Not quite. State and federal protections such as the Shark Conservation Act were put in place not only to protect these cartilaginous creatures off U.S. coastal waters, but also to safeguard the overall marine habitats lining our shores. Without healthy populations of sharks in oceanic ecosystems, the overpopulation of their prey would result in catastrophic damage to fisheries, coral reefs, and an overabundance of potentially harmful aquatic wildlife.
The truth is shark attacks can be greatly reduced by following a few guidelines–without the need to permanently retire more sharks to the mainland. Never enter the water close to fishing peers and heavily chummed areas, avoid getting your feet wet when schools of baitfish are swimming nearby, and don’t get caught out during early morning or late evening hours (sharks love breakfast and dinner just as much as we do). By following a few simple precautions while abiding by state and federal fishing guidelines, we can all work toward a healthier relationship between the ocean’s shark population and our fellow man.
All photos by Ben Buchan. Follow his Instagram bensunderwater.