Bond University research shows Australia records most shark-bite fatalities

5 September 2014

Australia has recorded the highest number of fatal shark bites globally over the past three decades, as the number of unprovoked bites increased threefold, new research by Bond University shows.
The report, published this week in international scientific journal, Coastal Management, reveals 32 fatal shark bites had been documented in Australia between 1982 and 2011, more than South Africa, where there were 28 fatalities, or the United States, which recorded 25.
Associate Professor Daryl McPhee, who undertook the research, said there was a total of 171 unprovoked bites in Australia during that period, compared with 769 in the United States and 132 in South Africa.
“Of the six countries where shark bites are most prevalent, Australia actually recorded the fourth lowest percentage of bites that were fatal at 18.7 per cent, despite having the highest number of total fatalities,” he said.
“In comparison, the United States has by far the highest number of recorded bites but also the lowest percentage of fatalities, at just 3.6 per cent, which is likely to be because of a higher level of reporting of incidents, while Reunion, a small country located south of Mauritius, had the least attacks of the six countries, but the highest fatality rate at 51.6 per cent.”
Associate Professor McPhee said the high number of fatalities in shark bite victims in Australia could be attributed to a number of factors.
“Australians have an obvious love and affinity with the water, so the high level of usage undoubtedly plays a part,” he said.
“The type and size of sharks found in Australian waters is also believed to be a factor, with the white shark behind the highest number of unprovoked shark bites globally and prevalent here.
“Where the species responsible could be identified, the white shark was responsible for 41 of the 171 recorded bites over the period of the study, with 46.3 per cent of these proving fatal, with tiger and bull sharks behind the majority of unprovoked bites.”
The Bond University associate professor said the reasons behind the increasing number of bites and fatalities was complex and the next phase of the study would look more closely into ‘hot spots’ globally.
“While an increase in the human population clearly plays a role, it cannot explain the observations entirely,” he said.
“Changes to the species habitat use or behaviour as a result of both natural events and because of human activity is also likely to play a role.
“For example, an increase in the population of humpback whales and the New Zealand fur seal in Australian waters, including in Western Australian where there has been recent fatal shark bites, is believed to be a potential factor as the presence of this marine life potentially attracts more sharks to these areas.”
In Australia, surfers were bitten more than any other recreational water user, with 63 surfers suffering shark bites, compared with 44 swimmers and 26 scuba divers.
However, only 15.8 per cent of surfers suffered fatal injuries, compared with 34.6 per cent of scuba divers and 33.3 per cent of snorkelers.
“Scuba divers suffer a greater number of bites to the head and torso, as their whole body is submerged in the water, while surfers are more likely to receive less fatal bites to the limbs,” said Associate Professor McPhee.
“However, overall it is important to remember that despite numbers increasing, unprovoked shark bites still remain an extremely infrequent event with, for example, 129 people drowning on Australian surf beaches between 2001 and 2005 alone.
“The fear of a shark bite is out of all proportion to the actual risk posed.
“Unfortunately Hollywood in particular has created an inaccurate impression that there are sinister ‘rogue’ sharks waiting around every corner to ‘attack’ an unsuspecting human. This is simply not true.”
Bond University Associate Professor McPhee said the fear of shark bites could drive governments to enact expensive shark control programs.
“These not only kill sharks but other marine animals including dugong and marine turtles,” he said.
“Instead of shark control programs, governments should focus investment on non-lethal alternatives including public education.
“We need to focus on actions that facilitate early warning of an enhanced local risk, improve information flow to allow people to make better informed decisions about going into the water at certain times and locations, and increase our understanding of the habitat use of sharks commonly implicated in unprovoked bites.”
The next phase of the study, due to be completed next year, will look at the data in further detail, complementing it with evidence from scientists in ‘hot spots’ to get a better understanding of why unprovoked shark bites are more prevalent in some areas.

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