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Snowbirds beware: Shark bites are on the rise again

Thursday, January 27th 2022, 1:50 pm - COVID closures kept shark bites at bay, report finds.

Globally, there were 73 unprovoked shark bite incidents in 2021 - an increase after three years of declines, the Florida Museum reports.

There were also 39 provoked shark bites and nine fatalities last year the museum says, which releases the data annually under its International Shark Attack File (ISAF).

The five-year global average currently sits at 72 bites.

One of the reasons for the uptick (and downturn) in incidents is due to COVID: 2020 saw the widespread closure of beaches due to the pandemic, resulting in only 52 confirmed shark bites that year, the lowest number in a decade.

“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,” ISAF manager Tyler Bowling said in a statement.

Most of 2021's attacks took place in the South Pacific. Australia, New Caledonia, and New Zealand had six deaths, while South Africa, Brazil, and the U.S. had a single death each.

The U.S. is the world leader of annual shark bites, confirming 47 - or 64 per cent - of total global cases in 2021. More than half (51 per cent) of the victims were surfers or boarders, people who spend a lot of time in open water.

In the U.S., bites are most frequent in Florida, and likely due to interactions with blacktip sharks. This smaller species prefers warmer waters and hunts along shorelines, using the shallower water to avoid larger predators like hammerheads.

Still, experts say deaths are becoming less frequent.

“The overall decline in mortalities from shark bites is likely due to a combination of improved beach safety protocols around the world and a diminishment in the number of sharks of various species in coastal waters,” Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum’s shark research program, said in a statement.

“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.”

THEY DON'T WANT TO EAT YOU

Most shark attacks aren't intentional; great whites have notoriously bad eyesight, and will sometimes mistake humans for seals. Experts say blacktip shark bites are usually due to a case of "mistaken identity" as well.

That's especially true for surfers and swimmers - an October 2021 study found people floating on the surface of the ocean will look nearly identical to a seal or seal lion when a shark is looking up because sharks can't identify fine details or colours.

Thumbnail: Custom graphic by Cheryl Santa Maria. Shark image: BELOW_SURFACE/Getty Images Pro.

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