Once dismissed, shark attacks may hit new record in 2016

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Shark Attack Summer 2016 Forecast & How To Stay Safe

NEW YORK, May 28 (Reuters) - As the summer beach season opens in the United States, at least one expert is predicting an increase in shark attacks around the world this year that will surpass last year's record number.

"We should have more bites this year than last," George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, said in an interview shortly before the Memorial Day holiday weekend that signals the unofficial start of America's summer vacation = and beach - season.

In 2015, there were 98 shark attacks, including six fatalities, according to Burgess.

Why the increased bloodshed? Shark populations are slowly recovering from historic lows in the 1990s, the world's human population has grown and rising temperatures are leading more people to go swimming, Burgess said.

Still, the university notes that fatal shark attacks, while undeniably graphic, are so infrequent that beachgoers face a higher risk of being killed by sand collapsing as the result of overachieving sand castle builders.

With their fearsome teeth and dorsal fins the inspiration for hit movies, TV series and beach-town souvenirs, it is hard to believe that a century ago American scientists did not believe sharks would fatally attack humans in U.S. temperate waters without provocation.

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Great White Sharks
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Once dismissed, shark attacks may hit new record in 2016
Great White Shark Emerging From the Water
Great white attacks bait.
Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) breaching in an attack on seal , South Africa
Great white shark - Carcharodon carcharias, in pacific ocean near the coast of Guadalupe Island - Mexico.
Attack great white shark
Dorsal aileron of a Great White shark (Carcharodon carcharias) swimming near surface level, Kleinbaai near Gans Bay, South Western Cape, South Africa
Great white shark nearby Dyer Island, South Africa
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That changed in July 1916, when four people were killed in attacks near the New Jersey shore, a series of deaths blamed on a sea turtle until a great white shark with human remains in its stomach was captured nearby.

Since those attacks, public opinion of sharks has changed dramatically, with swimmers' fears fanned by fiction, from the 1975 Academy Award-winning film "Jaws," based on Peter Benchley's book about a giant man-eater, to the Discovery Channel's modern "Shark Week" summer television series.

Years before the attacks near the northern Jersey Shore town of Keyport, millionaire businessman Hermann Oelrichs offered a $500 prize in 1891 (more than $13,000 in today's dollars) to anyone who could prove that a shark ever bit a human in nontropical waters. The reward was never claimed.

Well-regarded scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York pointed to Oelrichs' wager as proof that no shark would bite a human, according to Michael Capuzzo's 2001 book "Close to Shore."

Even the New York Times in a 1915 editorial titled "Let Us Do Justice to the Sharks" cited Oelrichs' offer and said, "That sharks can properly be called dangerous in this part of the world is apparently untrue."

HUNTER BECOMES THE HUNTED

While those attacks gave oceangoers pause for decades, "Jaws" turned the hunter into the hunted, Burgess said.

"Every red-blooded American man felt obliged to go out and catch sharks, which were readily capturable," said the University of Florida's Burgess, noting that they can be caught offshore and from small boats. "It became the blue-collar marlin."

Sharks were being killed by sportfishing fleets as well as commercial fishermen seeking steaks for U.S. grocery stores and Asian markets for shark fin soup, regarded as an aphrodisiac in some cultures.

By the late 1980s, shark populations were crashing, and scientists sounded the alarm. The first law protecting sharks was passed in the 1990s in Florida - the home to the largest shark population of any U.S. state - and limited the daily catch to one shark per person, according to Burgess.

Federal safeguards followed, as well as more state efforts like the shark fin ban that has gone into effect in 10 states and is under consideration in Rhode Island.

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Different kinds of sharks
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Once dismissed, shark attacks may hit new record in 2016
(Photo via Getty)
Silky sharks in Jardines de la Reina archipelago in Cuba. (Photo via Getty)
Snorkelling with Whale Sharks at Exmouth, Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, the largest fish in the ocean, and a vegetarian. (Photo: Anthony Marsh, Alamy)
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Sharks are a group of fish characterized by a cartilaginous skeleton, five to seven gill slits on the sides of the head, and pectoral fins that are not fused to the head. (Photo via Getty)
Caribbean reef sharks, Carcharhinus perezi, dusk in bahamas. (Photo via Getty)
The sharks of Tiger Beach, Bahamas. (Photo: Greg Amptman, Shutterstock)
Frenetic activity of Caribbean reef sharks Carcharhinus perezii . Sharks were attracted by chumming the area. (Photo: Stephen Frink, Getty)
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Conservation efforts have introduced the public to another side of sharks: their vital link to the ocean ecosystem, their typically curious and shy nature, even the human-like birth of their offspring rather than laying eggs like other fish.

The public is clearly hooked. Aquariums from San Francisco to Brooklyn say sharks are among the most popular attractions, and some people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to swim close to them.

Mario Caruso, 42, a Brooklyn father of two, said it was well worth the $250 he paid to spend an hour submerged in the Atlantic Ocean inside a metal cage with sharks prowling around him off Montauk, New York.

"The first time, you get that rush of adrenaline and then, 'Oh, boy - he's got teeth!'," he said. (Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

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