Thursday, November 23, 2017
Outdoors

Wary of what's in the water? Rewards often trump risks

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Former Bucs defensive lineman Warren Sapp goes lobstering in the Florida Keys a few weeks ago and gets bitten by a nurse shark. It became national news not only because shark attacks are notable, but because what shark would dare bite Warren Sapp?

After learning that Sapp was okay, the next question: If a Hall of Fame football lineman who routinely crushed offensive players can get gashed by a shark in the middle of a sunny day, what chance do you have of avoiding such a bite?

The answer is: A pretty good one.

Despite the fact that reported incidents of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide reached an all-time high of 98 in 2015, according to the International Shark Attack File, the odds are still slim of ever encountering a shark while in the water. The odds are even longer for those just enjoying a day at the beach. Of the hundreds of thousands of swimmers at Florida beaches last year, there were 30 reported attacks and one death.

For those, like Sapp, who are harvesting crustaceans or fish while in the water, the danger rises slightly.

"(Sapp's attack) is what we would call a provoked incident," said George Burgess, an Ichthyologist and fisheries biologist at the University of Florida's Florida Museum of Natural History. He is also the director of the International Shark Attack File and a world-renowned shark expert. "If you are in the ocean and collecting other animals, like lobster, or spearfishing, there is always that risk of an attack. There could be a moray eel in the same hole as the lobster. Or there could be a nurse shark nearby that is after the same thing.

"The safest thing to do in those cases is if you harvest an animal, take it up to the boat as fast as possible. Don't stay under the water and continue to collect more. That increases the danger."

Are sharks really swimming around looking for human limbs to chomp on? No. In fact, sharks would rather not have anything to do with a human. In the spring and summer in Florida, sharks typically move inshore. They move offshore in the fall and winter.

So right now, with sharks inshore and with more humans in the warm, Gulf waters, the chance of an encounter increases. But it's still a small chance. You're 30 percent more likely to be struck by lightning than bitten by a shark.

"The key is to respect the ocean, not fear it," Burgess said. "What swimmers in (the Tampa Bay) area need to worry about more are stingrays. There are exponentially more people getting stung by a stingray than getting bit by a shark.

"Any time you are in the ocean you are an eco-tourist. In other words, we are visitors to a foreign environment. We did not evolve from the ocean. Even the best swimmers are gangly in the water and make a lot of noise. If an animal hears that they think we must be in trouble."

Yes, there are large predators in the ocean. And yes, every once in a while one of them comes in contact with a human, even one as tough as Sapp. But Burgess, who has studied sharks for more than 40 years, said that's no reason to give up going to the beach.

"Would you also not cross the street to get to the liquor store for a cold beer?" Burgess said. "There is a slight risk in crossing the street, but the reward is that cold beer. The reward at the beach would be a nice swim in the ocean. If that isn't worth it, then maybe you should stick to swimming pools.

"The fact is that nationwide there are about six shark-related deaths per year. That means of the millions of people who swim in the ocean each year, only six don't come back. That's much less of a risk than crossing the street for that cold one."

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