ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida is once again the shark bite capital of the world as numbers jumped globally after three years of declines, according to the annual update from the International Shark Attack File.
The group released its annual report this month and found 73 documented attacks last year, a stark contrast from 2020′s total of 52. Numbers don’t appear to be jumping the shark. Rather, experts say the 2021 number aligns with the five-year global average of 72 annually. International fatalities also saw an increase with 11 deaths reported. 2020 saw 10 deaths, which was unusually high given the year’s low shark bite count.
The increase in attacks and fatal incidents is surprising for experts, but not a cause for concern as overall short-term trends of both counts are still decreasing, the ISAF said.
“The spike in 2020 and 2021 is almost certainly because of the expanding numbers of white sharks, which have been increasing in various localities likely in response to a boom in the seal populations they feed on,” said Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum’s shark research program based in Gainesville.
The U.S. led the world in 2021 shark attacks, but it only recorded one death, which took place in late December off a California beach. A man was surfing in Morro Bay when he was attacked by what appears to be a great white shark, according to a report by ABC News. The man later died at the scene.
U.S. attacks last year amounted to nearly double that of the next country listed, Australia, partly because of its enormous shoreline and its high turnout of beachgoers. Florida makes up 60% of all attacks in the country. Hawaii is second on the list, but the Sunshine State boasts a total of 896 attacks since 1837 compared to Hawaii’s 182.
While Florida is the biggest fish among state shark bites, Volusia County continues to hold the title of the Shark Bite Capital of the World, accounting for 63% of all Florida attacks, the ISAF said. Last year, Florida reported 28 attacks, 17 of which took place in Volusia. That number is striking to experts given its departure from Volusia’s five-year average of nine incidents a year, ISAF records show.
“However, Volusia County experiences considerable variation in the number of bites from one year to the next,” the ISAF said.
Bull sharks appear to be responsible for most Florida attacks, with blacktips not far behind. Both sharks prefer to swim in shallow coastal water, but the former is known to be extremely aggressive and dangerous toward humans, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Blacktips aren’t known to be as aggressive, but are much more prevalent in Florida’s waters.
Every year thousands of blacktips, 3 feet to 5 feet on average, make their way from North Carolina south to Florida, Tyler Bowling, a manager at the ISAF, previously told the Orlando Sentinel.
“There’s a lot of them out there. In fact if you’re walking the beach at sunrise there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see one riding in the waves,” he said. “We don’t have a whole lot of fatalities from sharks in Florida, and you’ll never get a fatality from a blacktip.”
ISAF also found that most attacks were related to surfers and other board sports, which accounted for 51% of all attacks. Experts believe sharks attack surfers because of murky water and a resemblance to sea turtles, Bowling said. Also, surfers tend to spend time in the “surf zone,” an area frequented by sharks, and probably attract sharks by splashing and paddling.
Even with 2021′s higher shark attack count, experts are still seeing short-term trends decreasing, and emphasized the odds of being bitten by a shark remain very low.
“The total number of unprovoked shark bites worldwide is extremely low, given the number of people participating in aquatic recreation each year,” the ISAF said.
However, Bowling says COVID-19 may have played a part in the lower number of shark attacks with pandemic restrictions limiting beach activities. The jump between 2020 and 2021 may have been representative of beachgoers returning to the beach.
“Shark bites dropped drastically in 2020 due to the pandemic. This past year was much more typical, with average bite numbers from an assortment of species and fatalities from white sharks, bull sharks and tiger sharks,” Bowling said.
Although, the 2021 numbers aren’t final and could even increase because of problems in the chain of reporting last year, Bowling said.
The ISAF saw a high number of “not confirmed” cases for the second year in a row, which it attributes to first responders having to deal with the pandemic.
“Because first responders have been focused on COVID response they generally had less time to invest in shark bite investigations. In other words they have less free time to discuss with scientists an issue that’s not an emergency,” Bowling said.
If the ISAF can’t confirm the details with a credible source, then it documents the attack’s existence and waits to confirm the details at a later time.
“We saw this in 2020 as well, and had to circle back to many cases months later when COVID waves calmed down and were able to get more information,” he said. “We will likely have to continue this pattern as the pandemic continues.”