GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida is the world’s shark attack hotspot, a recent study reveals. The Sunshine State had more reported bites than anywhere else on Earth in 2022. This news comes as global shark attack incidents are actually falling to their lowest levels in a decade.
None of the 16 attacks on people off the Florida coast last year were fatal, but two (likely by bull sharks) led to the victims needing amputations. Overall, the number of 2022 shark attacks worldwide reached a 10-year low, according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File.
There were 57 unprovoked shark bites, most of which occurred in the United States and Australia. Of those, five shark attacks were fatal, down from nine deaths in 2021 and 10 in 2020. Since 2013, there have been an average of 74 unprovoked attacks per year, with 2020 being a notable exception due to COVID-related travel restrictions and beach closures leading to fewer encounters between humans and sharks. Experts say the overall reduction in the number of reported attacks in 2022 may also reflect a documented global decline in shark numbers.
“Generally speaking, the number of sharks in the world’s oceans has decreased, which may have contributed to recent lulls” says Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Florida Program for Shark Research, in a media release. “It’s likely that fatalities are down because some areas have recently implemented rigorous beach safety protocols, especially in Australia.”
Some attacks come after humans provoke sharks to strike
The International Shark Attack File places an emphasis on unprovoked bites in its annual report and does not highlight attacks that may have been a result of mitigating circumstances, such as fishing lines cast in the direct vicinity of the shark attack incident or the presence of fish guts in the water.
The report notes that there were 32 additional bites in 2022 that fit the ISAF’s criteria for something that intentionally or unintentionally provokes a shark.
“Unprovoked bites give us significantly more insight into the biology and behavior of sharks,” Naylor says. “Changing the environment such that sharks are drawn to the area in search of their natural food source might prompt them to bite humans when they otherwise wouldn’t.”
Among the Florida incidents, a woman snorkeling off the Dry Tortugas early in 2022 was bitten by a lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris), which rarely attack humans. The incident marks only the eleventh known unprovoked shark attack by that species.
The United States had the highest number of shark attack reports in 2022, but only a single unprovoked fatality. This occurred when a snorkeler went missing along Keawakapu Beach in Maui, Hawaii. Australia had nine confirmed unprovoked shark bites, with single bites occurring in New Zealand, Thailand, and Brazil.
Two female tourists were fatally attacked on the same day in Egypt’s Red Sea, where shark encounters are typically rare. It remains unclear which species was responsible for the deaths, but experts say that the shape and coloration of the fins point to a tiger shark.
South Africa, which averages a few bites a year, had two unprovoked attacks in 2022, both of which were fatal and likely caused by white sharks. Although there were fewer bites last year, a spike in localized incidents is prompting concern from residents and government officials in some areas.
New York is becoming a surprising home to sharks
New York had a record eight bites in 2022, six of which were confirmed to involve a shark. Before the attacks, the state had only 12 reported unprovoked bites on record. In 2016, researchers determined that juvenile sand tiger sharks started living in the Great South Bay, between Long Island and Fire Island. The sharks continue to use the sheltered bay as a nursery, where they have better protection from other predators than they would otherwise have in the open sea. Dr. Naylor says the majority of bites in Long Island were likely from sand tiger sharks that were drawn into the surf zone by an influx of baitfish.
“The Gulf Stream’s eddies ebb and flow each year. Sometimes they can come very close to shore, bringing nutrients and fish with them. The juvenile sand tigers will follow the fish, which in some cases leads to an uptick in encounters with people,” Naylor continues. “But local perceptions of shark bites rarely map to global statistics. If you zoom out, these eddies unpredictably break off from oceanic currents all over the world in haphazard ways.”
For as long as records have been kept, there have been no reported fatalities from sand tiger shark attacks. However, juveniles have often been implicated in non-lethal bites.
“Juveniles tend to be more experimental and will try things that an adult shark wouldn’t,” Naylor concludes. “If fish are especially dense where people are swimming and visibility is poor, then it is more likely that young sharks, which lack the experience of older animals, will mistake a swimmer’s foot for their intended prey.”
The researchers notes that the chances of being bitten by a shark remain “incredibly low” and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death worldwide. Moreover, coastal features such as rip tides and strong currents pose a greater risk to beachgoers than sharks.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.