The number of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide rose sharply in 2021 according to a report published by the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File (ISAF.)
The number of fatalities remained relatively stable, with 11 recorded in 2021 compared to 13 in 2020.
Scientists behind the report speculate that changing rules and attitudes to the COVID-19 pandemic could be behind the figures.
“Last year, we speculated—and we don’t know this for sure—that the reason why there was a lower number was because there were fewer people in the water because of the lockdowns,” Gavin Naylor, the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research who co-authored the report, told Newsweek. “Now the number is back up again because people got fed up and returned to the water.
“We had a little bit of a dip last year and we seem to be moving up to normal numbers this year,” he said regarding the number of unprovoked shark bites on humans.
A sign warns beach goers of great white sharks off Cape Cod in the U.S. The number of shark attacks in New England is expected to rise in the future amid a resurgence in the seal population. Andrew Lichtenstein / Contributor/Getty Images
The ISAF report showed where on Earth most attacks were taking place. The relatively small archipelago of New Caledonia in the South Pacific reported two fatal shark attacks. This is just one less than Australia—the country that often tops shark fatality figures due to the prevalence of larger species such as great whites and tiger sharks.
In both cases, the prevalence of these larger, more dangerous sharks and the popularity of tourism and water sports like surfing can make for a rare but sometimes fatal combination.
“There is a lot of tourism in New Caledonia, a destination for a lot of French tourists that encourages a lot of the sportier people to do things like kite surfing,” Naylor said. “And they have quite a few tiger sharks there and that’s punching above it’s weight in terms of the number of fatalities.
“We do see that in places that are sea mounts—like Reunion, or Hawaii, or New Caledonia—in these islands in a pelagic system, there are some fairly large sharks. Tiger sharks and bull sharks for example. They often have beautiful coral reefs that attract a lot of tourists and you’ve got these large animals in the water doing recreational sports and the probability of an interaction between the two goes up.
“Australia for example has more fatalities because there are a lot of white sharks down there, near the surface, feeding on seals. And people there are all out surfing … and when a large white shark bites you on the leg in can sever your femoral artery and often can be fatal unless you get attention really quickly.”
Attacks in these areas differ to those on the Atlantic Coast of the U.S., where there are still many surfers and people going into the water, but fewer of the larger or more dangerous sharks like tigers and white sharks.
A great white shark is seen off the coast of Mexico. Larger sharks like great whites, tigers and bull sharks are more likely to be behind fatal shark attacks. Dave J Hogan / Contributor/Getty Images
However, there were more bites in the U.S. last year (47) than any other country. That was 42 per cent higher than the 33 shark attacks recorded in U.S. in 2020, and represented 64 per cent of the worldwide total.
Most U.S. shark attacks occurred in Florida, with 28 bites recorded. In the U.S. as a whole there was only one fatal shark attack.
“Fatalities are absolutely, very strongly correlated with the size of the shark, and that depends on where you’re surfing,” Naylor said. “We don’t have too many white sharks close to shore in Florida, so we don’t have many fatalities at all in Florida, and yet we lead the world with bites because there are lots and lots of smaller blacktip sharks close to shore and there are a lot of people who surf.”
In terms of the future of shark attacks, one place that could see an uptick in attacks is at the other end of America’s Atlantic Coast in New England.
After the passing of the Marine Mammal Act in 1972, seal numbers off the North Atlantic Coast have responded and steadily increased, and so too have white shark sightings.
Naylor said that he expects shark attack incidents in the area to increase, despite the number of sharks worldwide declining precipitously amid industrial fishing.
“We see more white sharks in New England,” he said. “We see that a lot of the bites by white sharks on people are not being done by these 17 foot females but by 13 foot teenagers. Most bites are by naive animals that are more likely to make mistakes. If you are a 40-year-old white shark who has been around the block a bit, you know the difference between a seal and a surfer. But if you are only a four-year-old white shark and excited by seals in the area, and pushed by a wave towards where humans are in the water, you’re more likely to make a mistake.
“We think that it is very likely that, over the long term, the incidence of bites in New England will go up at the hands or teeth of white sharks. These are large animals and there will be a higher proportion of them that will be fatal compared to say blacktip sharks.
“So I can imagine in the future that there will unfortunately be more fatalities.”
This article has been updated to include more information on future shark attacks.