Florida is often called the "Shark Attack Capital of the World." But one noted shark researcher thinks the state has gotten a bum rap. • "It can be very misleading," said Bob Hueter, director of Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research in Sarasota. "Not all shark-human encounters are created equal. To use the word 'attack' to describe every incident is just not accurate."
Most shark attacks occur close to land. Marine biologists believe that in most cases, the shark has mistaken the swimmer or surfer for a common food source, such as a seal or large fish.
Yet despite these cases of mistaken identity, every shark-human incident is called an "attack," as if it involved malicious or predatory intent.
That is why Hueter and Christopher Neff of the University of Sydney in Australia have proposed a new system of classification to support more accurate reporting of shark-human interactions.
The study, published this year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, bolsters the argument that the word "attack" is often misleading.
For starters, of the roughly 500 species of sharks, only a few are known to be dangerous to humans. Three species — the white shark, tiger shark and bull shark — are responsible for most fatal attacks.
In Florida, most shark-human encounters occur in Volusia and Brevard counties and usually involve surfers. Why? The answer is simple. Surfers typically spend more time in the water than swimmers. The longer you spend in the water, the more likely you are to run into a shark.
"They call this area Shark Alley," Hueter said. "The surfers look for waves around the inlets and jetties, which are the same places that the blacktip and spinner sharks look for food."
Hueter said that fatal shark attacks are "extremely rare." Records show that 11 fatal bites have been recorded over the past 129 years in Florida, vastly fewer than the number of deaths by drowning or lightning strikes.
"So we shouldn't classify the accidental bite of a 2-foot-long shark on a surfer's toe the same way we would classify the fatal bite of a 15-foot great white shark on a swimmer," Hueter added.
So Hueter and Neff, his Australian colleague, have come up with four categories that can be used to describe a wide range of shark incidents:
• Shark sightings: Sightings of sharks in the water in proximity to people with no physical contact.
• Shark encounters: No bite takes place and no humans are injured, but physical contact occurs with a person or an inanimate object holding a person, such as a surfboard or boat. A shark might also bump a swimmer and its rough skin might cause a minor abrasion.
• Shark bites: Bites by small or large sharks that result in minor to moderate injuries.
• Fatal shark bites: One or more bites causing fatal injuries. Hueter and Neff cautioned against using the term "shark attack" unless the motivation and intent of the shark are clearly established by experts, which is rarely possible.
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Hueter said that sharks are in danger, thanks in part to the popular misconception that these creatures are all man killers.
"The term 'man-eater' was coined two centuries ago by a scientist who had limited understanding of shark behavior and biology," he said. "Then, in the 1950s, another researcher wrongly suggested sharks could go 'rogue' and develop a taste for human flesh."
Hueter said that the unwarranted use of the word "attack" in newspaper headlines or in television broadcasts has added to the poor public perception of sharks.
"Sharks play a vital role in the marine ecosystem," Hueter said. "The more people understand them, the better their long-term chance of survival."