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Shark encounters more likely at the Jersey Shore this year, expert says

attacking shark (Peter_Nile, ThinkStock)
Peter_Nile, ThinkStock

There could be a record number of shark attacks in the United States this year, and encounters along the Jersey Coast are likely to be greater, according to Dr. George Burgess, Director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.

His prediction is based on the theory that the Earth’s human population continues to increase, so more people are heading to the shore.

“Human population rises every year and with it comes a concurrent increase in the number of people going into the sea and the number of hours in the sea by humans increases every year, and so since shark attack is fundamentally an odd situation involving how many people are in the water and how many sharks are in the water, if all things are equal from year to year, one might expect that there would be an increase in the number of incidents involving sharks and humans,” Burgess said.

On the East Coast, Burgess said shark populations, which are at low levels due to overfishing, are on the rebound as a result of effective fishing management measures.

“Each year over the next probably 20 years or so, we’ll be seeing more sharks each year than we have in the last twenty, and as a result, the increase in the number of humans and the number of sharks, so again will result in a rise,” Burgess said.

A third factor involves global climate change, which Burgess said is resulting in warmer air and sea temperatures.

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“And since most sharks are warm water loving animals, that means that there’s going to be increases in their ranges northward in our hemisphere, which means the New Jersey Coast is going to see more sharks than they have in the past simply because the waters get warmer earlier in the spring and stay later in the fall,” he said. “That’s where the prediction, all things being equal come into play.”

Burgess said that’s not always the case every year. He said meteorological events, oceanographic events, and from a human standpoint, socioeconomic events, all influence the number of sharks and the number of humans at any given place.

“We see year to year variations where you may have a big year where there’s a lot of interactions, like last year, and then you may have other years where there’s less numbers, and last year’s numbers of course were inflated as a result of it being also an El Nino year, the year in which we had a big oceanographic event which influences water temperatures and makes everything warmer. Part of the reason we had higher numbers last year, no doubt was related to El Nino,” Burgess said.

Last year there were 98 shark bites worldwide, including six deaths, according to Burgess.

“That six people who died coincidentally is the average that we’ve had per year over the last decade, so we can expect about six people to die any given year in the world,” he said. “And when one considers that there were literally billions of hours being spent by hundreds and hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people in the water, the reality is that the chance of you going into the water and not coming out is the result of a shark are very slim indeed.”

If you see a fin, you shouldn’t assume that you’re going to be attacked by a shark, but Burgess cautioned, “it’s prudent for you to act as if that was the case.” He advised moving away calmly or getting out of the water.

“Sharks are attracted to erratic movements and behavior, and so the smoother and easier you could do, the better. Of course, we as humans in the water are not known for our grace,” Burgess said.

He said remembering that we are eco-tourists is key when entering the water.

“It’s actually a pretty forgiving place the sea, considering that we go in there naked and dumb and all but six of us come back out every year,” Burgess said.

Any shark that grows to about six feet in length or larger is a potential danger, according to Burgess. This is not because they’re looking to attack humans, but because their anatomy is such that even if they make a mistake, they can cause damage.

“Most shark species are not aiming for larger pray items such as a human being, in fact, most species are fish eaters, or invertebrate eaters, such as shrimp and so forth,” Burgess said.

Burgess said a few species, such as bull sharks, tiger sharks and white sharks all reach large sizes and have teeth that evolutionarily are designed for sheering and taking bites out of things. They will often go after large prey items, he said.

“Although humans are not a normal part of the food chain, because we’re not members of that environment, we sometimes fit into the appropriate size class and become victims of investigatory bites,” Burgess said.

Most of the bites, about 100 in any given year, are due to “mistaken identity situations,” according to Burgess, in which the shark bites at movement in the water caused either by a hand or foot, that it mistakes for a fish or other normal prey item.

“The shark bites at the splash and inside that splash, instead of a juicy fish is a juicy foot, and they grab and they let go right away, no Jaws music in the background for a return trip or anything. The go on what we call hit and run attacks,” Burgess said.

Sharks usually leave puncture wounds or lacerations that require stitches, he said.

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