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"Sharks are swarming' in Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay may be the wrong place for a swim right now. "Sharks are swarming," said commercial fisher Paul Vacchiano, who caught 3,000 pounds of blacktips and bull sharks this week in the area where a swimmer was attacked Friday.

"This has been way better shark fishing than we usually have," said Vacchiano, a 34-year-old Pinellas County native who has fished commercially for 16 years. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights Vacchiano, Mike Wolfe and Robert Melley landed blacktips measuring 5 feet and several bull sharks that exceeded 300 pounds.

"We'd catch 'em, butcher 'em on the spot and throw the guts overboard," Vacchiano said. "There was so many sharks around I was saying, "Somebody is going to get ate.' "

Rick LePrevost may have been that unlucky person. He was swimming with another man and three children behind a sailboat about a mile east of The Pier in St. Petersburg when what he described as an 9-foot shark pulled him down. He suffered wounds to his abdomen, hip, leg and ankle.

Blacktips are slender, fast-moving sharks that often swim in large schools. During summer, they migrate into Tampa Bay to feed on sardines, mullet and menhaden. They are rarely implicated in attacks on people.

Bull sharks, which sometimes reach 12 feet in length, are a common species known for their aggression and robust appetites. Bull sharks, occasionally blamed for attacks on people, enter the bay during the summer to feed and to give birth.

Other potentially dangerous Tampa Bay summer visitors include include great hammerheads, tigers and sand tiger sharks. "By far the bull shark is the most aggressive," said shark specialist Bob Hueter of Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory.

Shark attacks are unusual in Florida, and considered extremely rare in Suncoast waters. The International Shark Attack File, maintained by the University of Florida, has listed only 12 attacks in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Hernando counties since 1884.

"Most shark attacks happen on the east coast of the state," said biologist George Burgess, keeper of the file. "They usually involve surfers, swimmers and bathers. Most of those attacks are what I call hit-and-run attacks. Small sharks, chasing small fish, bite a human by mistake and then get out of there."

Gulf coast attacks, though infrequent, tend to be more serious, Burgess said. "We're usually talking about bigger animals that are looking for large meals. Historically, attacks in West Florida involve scuba divers and people swimming long distances in deep water."

Even so, Burgess said, most swimmers should lose no sleep.

"People spend millions of hours in the water in Florida every year," he said. "And yet we only have between 10 and 15 attacks a year, and one fatal attack about every two years. You're more likely to get hurt by stepping on a pop-top or getting a bad sunburn. Your chances of an attack is zilch. Of course, if you're the person who beats the odds, you won't feel comforted by statistics."

Vacchiano, the commercial fisher who enjoyed outstanding fishing east of The Pier this week, said some sharks were too big to land. "We can't hold them," he said. "We had one big one go from one line to the other feeding on sharks we had hooked. It just left us the heads of five-foot sharks. Big ones just tear you up."

That didn't stop Vacchiano from going overboard.

"When you're fishing, sometimes you get a line wrapped around the boat or something and you have to take care of it," he said. "But I guess I'll stay out of the water."

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