Last year, sharks bit 91 people worldwide, including one here in New Jersey, leading to 14 deaths, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History's 2023 shark attack report, released Monday.
Both numbers are higher than the five year average, but consistent with long-term trends, the museum said. The museum also reconfirms that despite the uptick in 2023, shark bites are rare compared with the amount of people that enter the water.
“This is within the range of the normal number of bites, though the fatalities are a bit unnerving this year,” said Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s shark research program.
The shark bite in New Jersey was not one of the fatalities, but is was a scary moment, nonetheless. It was the first confirmed attack at the Shore since 2013. It happened at Stone Harbor in the middle of a Sunday afternoon on May 21. The victim was a teenage girl Maggie Drozdowski from Chester County, Pennsylvania, who was surfing with a friend when she lost her board on a wave. While she treading water her foot was suddenly seized by a shark and she was pulled under.
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Drozdowski, who was 15, screamed underwater, frantically shook her foot free, found her board and paddled to shore. Once there she wrapped her bleeding leg in a towel, initially fearfully she might lose it. Paramedics treated her on the beach and she was taken to the hospital, where she received six stiches to close the wounds to her foot and calf. The type of shark was never identified.
The 2013 attack was at Bay Head and also involved a boarder, though in this case it was a teenage boy on a body board. The unidentified species of shark bit the youth's flipper and fortunately that was it.
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91 bites, 14 deaths in 2023
The Florida Museum of Natural History, which logs all the shark attacks worldwide in its Global Shark Attack File, investigated 120 interactions between sharks and humans in 2023. Of those it confirmed 69 unprovoked attacks, including Drozdowski, and 22 provoked attacks, for a total of 91.
The museum describes and unprovoked attack as a bite on a live human that occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark.
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A provoked attacked is defined as when a human initiates the interaction with a shark in some way. These include instances when divers are bitten after harassing or trying to touch sharks, bites on spearfisherman, bites on people attempting to feed sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net.
Out of the remaining 29 cases the museum looked into, nine were boat bites, which include kayaks and motorized vessels like Jet Skis. Another two were scavenger bites on humans who were already deceased. Most however, could not be attributed to a shark and were most likely caused by another type of fish, such as a bluefish, or cuts from sharp objects in the water.
Of the 14 deaths, 10 were unprovoked. Two of the unprovoked deaths occurred in the United States; one death was a 39-year-old male surfer in Hawaii and the other was a 52-year-old man who was swimming off a beach in California who went missing. Witnesses said they saw a shark nearby and blood in the water,
There were five fatalities in Australia, and one each in in the Bahamas, Egypt, Mexico and New Caledonia. The 10 unprovoked deaths were five more than last year.
The United States had 36 unprovoked attacks, accounting for 52% of incidents worldwide. That number was slightly less than last year's 41 bites. Florida, which is historically the United States' sharkiest waters, saw the most with 16, followed by Hawaii with 8, New York, 4, North Carolina, South Carolina and California with 2 each and New Jersey with 1.
In regards to New York, three bites occurred on Long Island, but one occurred at a Rockaway Beach within the boundaries of New York City, where a shark attack hadn't happened in over 50 years.
The museum attributes the cause of that bite to improved water quality around New York, which has increased over the last two decades, and experts attribute the greater number of marine mammals — such as whales and dolphins — observed off the coast to bigger fish populations. More fish often means more sharks as well.
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Why sharks bite
The vast majority of unprovoked attacks are test bites, which occur when a shark misidentifies a human as their preferred prey. When this happens, the shark will typically swim away after a single bite. Some species like white sharks and tiger sharks, however, are large enough that even a single bite can be fatal.
Three fatalities in 2023 occurred at one remote surfing destination off the coast of Southern Australia. The Eyre Peninsula is known for its wild, untamed beaches and phenomenal surf breaks, and despite being challenging to access and navigate, it is an alluring spot for surfers.
Surfers and boarders bear the brunt of the shark attacks, accounting for 42% of the bites. Swimming was the next activity with highest percentage of bites, at 39%.
The region is home to seal colonies and a high density of white sharks feeding on them.
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“If a white shark is going after a seal and the seal knows it, the white shark hasn’t got a chance,” Naylor said. “Seals are really agile, so the only ones that get caught are the ones that are goofing off and flopping around on the surface minding their own business. And that’s kind of what a surfer looks like.”
Despite the increase, the number of bites and fatalities that occurred in 2023 are within the average for the last decade. Each year, there are consistently fewer than 100 unprovoked bites, making it more likely for someone to win the lottery than to be attacked by a shark.
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When there are more attacks, it often means that more people are spending time in the water — not that sharks have become more dangerous. It is simply a numbers game. Increased human activity in sharks’ natural habitats naturally leads to an increase in the number of animal encounters. Something as simple as a holiday weekend falling on particularly hot days can contribute to a spike in attacks.
“It causes a lot of fear, but the reality is you’re putting a lot of people in the water on a hot day with bait fish in the water,” Naylor said.
Of the shark species, great white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks accounted for the greater majority of the shark bites.
How can you protect yourself
While the odds of being bitten by a shark are incredibly low, ISAF provides recommendations for further precautions people can take. These include swimming with a friend, avoiding swimming when fish and fishermen are present, staying close to shore, not swimming at dawn or dusk, and avoiding excessive splashing.
When Jersey Shore native Dan Radel is not reporting the news, you can find him in a college classroom where he is a history professor. Reach him @danielradelapp; 732-643-4072; firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Shark attacks rose in 2023; Teen suffered NJ's first bite in 10 years