Could we be looking at another “summer of shark” hype this year? Sadly, it seems that way. In the second weekend of June two teens in North Carolina suffer shark attack injuries just miles away from each other on the beach, both in shallow water near shore. This was 30 miles from where a 13-year-old girl was bitten by a shark three days earlier.
Today, a 10-year old boy is another shark bite victim in Florida, the fourth this year in Volusia County, which has high rates of shark encounters.
Furthermore, we have reports out of Wildwood, N.J. about a juvenile dolphin carcass that washed up chomped in half. And, a tail of another one found in the same location (may or may not be from the same individual).
The apparent tail of a dolphin washed up on the same stretch of North Wildwood beach where a mauled bottlenose carcass was found over the weekend.
What we are experiencing is not necessarily abnormal shark behavior, but more people in the water at this time, and better worldwide reporting of shark-related stories. This triggers the availability heuristic for assessing risk – a typical human way of thinking where we rely on immediate examples that come mind. And lately, shark attacks are all over the news. I googled “shark attacks 2015” and came up with over 21 million hits for News.
Even entertainment sites are capitalizing on the interest: Zac Efron Came This Close to Being Eaten by a Shark (no hyperbole there…) Shark expert David Shiffman notes that according to the story, Efron was harassing the animal.
“No one should touch wildlife. Period. Look but don’t touch. What Efron did was wildlife harassment. Don’t do it. Don’t say it’s ok.”
He’s lucky he DIDN’T get injured. Provoking sharks is dumb and results in more attacks. Yet, people near the ocean now have sharks on the mind even in shallow water. We might not be hearing about the minor encounters with sharks if not for the current media interest in such stories and subsequent heightened public interest in them at the start of this vacation season.
2001 was officially labeled the “Summer of the Shark” when stories of sharks were sensationalized and emphasized after a near fatal attack in Mississippi in July of that year. It was a slow news time so something had to be used to create drama. It would not be a good thing for sharks to keep getting such press. However, helping that along might be that Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” of programming will this year be called the “Summer of the Shark”. It starts early July with original programing through August.
Discovery says this will add up to be the highest number of hours of programming in “Shark Week” history, thus earning the “Summer of the Shark” title.
Shark attacks in the US are still very rare. In 2014, there were only 52 reported, primarily in Florida (28). According to the same source, the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, there have been 10 already this year. South Florida has a year round climate for swimming and many popular beaches. There are also plenty of sharks. So, encounter opportunities are many. The attacks are rarely fatal. The kids injured this past week will survive.
It is NOT a reasonable option to pursue killing “aggressive” sharks. A plan by Oak Island officials to kill any shark seen near shore in North Carolina is more like a “witch hunt” than a safety policy. A shark culling plan in Australia backfired by killing other animals via shark netting. North Carolina state authorities have no plans to cull sharks, but it’s a safe bet that trophy seekers might make an effort to do so. This is why such sensational media coverage about sharks spreads unwarranted fear and can result in over hunting. Sharks are an important part of the ocean ecosystem; there is no sense in random culling. Worried officials should be seeking advice from marine biologists, not reacting out of fear and a need to “do something”.
Warning systems using observation that are not lethal to sharks is a better system. People who are entering the shark’s habitat should be aware of the surroundings, understand the risk, and know what to do in case of a sighting. Two good pieces of advice regarding sharks is to stay away from where they are feeding (either being fed or from a fishing pier with bait in the water) and, if one is after you, fight back, hit it in the nose or grab at the eyes or gills to make it retreat.