Photo by Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA
Since early June, sharks have attacked eight people off the coast of North Carolina. The victims range in age from 8 to nearly 70, and two people — teens attacked on June 14 — have lost arms. On Independence Day, a shark even attacked a 32-year-old soldier from the US Marine Corps.But while it might seem like open season on humans in North Carolina, the risk of an attack remains remarkably low. And, if anyone — or thing — is in danger, it's sharks.
The cluster of attacks in North Carolina is "highly unusual," George Burgess, who directs the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told VICE News. That's because the state has at most seen only five attacks in a single year.Florida is actually the leading location for shark encounters in the United States, Burgess said. Eleven people have already been attacked this year in Florida, and last year, there were 28 shark attacks in the Sunshine State.According to the International Shark Attack File, a database maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History that tracks shark-human incidents, there were only 72 "unprovoked" shark attacks last year globally. Of those, just three people died. Over the last ten years, that number has averaged out at six, Burgess said."It's an afterthought on the list of dangers associated with aquatic recreation," he told VICE News. "That said, nobody wants to be bit, and certainly nobody wants to be eaten. So it holds a special place in our concerns."Related: Shark attacks continue in North Carolina with second person bitten in two daysBurgess said a person is more likely to be killed on their drive to or from the beach, or die by drowning, than in the grip of a shark's powerful jaws.In fact, according to the International Shark Attack File, lightning is a much bigger hazard than sharks. Between 1959 and 2010, lightning killed more than 190 people in North Carolina alone, while sharks claimed a single life.
The majority of sharks don't consume mammals, and instead dine on creatures like fish and shrimp, says Cheryl Wilga, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Rhode Island. Those kinds of sharks like to be in the shallow surf, and actually can find prey by detecting the electrical charge emitted by their muscles."Sharks can sense electrical activity," Wilga told VICE News. "They can sense when your muscles are contracting."It's probably a mistake when a shark bites a human, she says. The smaller sharks in the surf zone might not be able to see what they're attacking, but can sense the electrical charge from a person's muscles, and take a bite — but then won't return for a second helping, she told VICE News.
But as scary as a shark attacks might be, the numbers show that sharks populations are the ones really at risk. Around 97 million sharks died because of human activity in 2010, according to research by Boris Worm, a professor and marine ecologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He said that the number of sharks killed each year tends to be around 100 million, which means that around 11,000 sharks die each hour."There's no place that's safe for sharks anymore," Worm told VICE News.One big reason for that is long-line fishing, in which lengthy fishing lines are towed behind boats in the open ocean, replete with hooks and bait. Those lines lure sharks with the scent of blood, even if it's fish like tuna, and not sharks, that the fishermen are trying to catch. It's a phenomenon called "bycatch."
'We've really woken up to the fact in the last 15 years or so that sharks are among the most endangered wildlife on the planet, period.'
"Half of all species of open-ocean sharks face a risk of extinction," Worm says. Part of the problem facing sharks is the consumption of shark-fin soup in Asia, a phenomenon that boomed in the 1990s with the region's economic growth, said Worm. The sharks die after their fins have been removed, even if they are released alive.Shelley Clarke, a fisheries researcher with the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations, estimates that in the year 2000, between 26 and 73 million sharks perished. That figure includes only sharks whose fins, which are used to make soup, entered fin markets. Clarke said that Worm's estimate of 100 million sharks killed every year may be too high because of the degree of uncertainty in conducting a global estimate.Gregory Skomal, a senior scientist with the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, said he thought Worm's estimate had "credibility" and that it was "the best available data.""Sharks are being harvested at alarming levels," he told VICE News. "I think the big problem is, quantifying that has been difficult."Watch the VICE News documentary "Poaching, Drugs, and Murder in Costa Rica: Shell Game" here:Compounding the problem is sharks have a long gestation period and don't have many offspring — which means that it's hard for them to recover when population numbers decline.Worm lamented the extraordinary long evolutionary line of sharks."They are from way back, more than 400 million years ago in fact," he said. "And the amazing thing is they have survived all this time, where dinosaurs came and went, and lots of other things came and went, and sharks stayed around."Since sharks have been kings of the ocean for eons, Worm said, evolutionarily, they aren't equipped to "sustain a lot of mortality.""I'm incredibly concerned about them. And I think a lot of people are. We've really woken up to the fact in the last 15 years or so that sharks are among the most endangered wildlife on the planet, period," he told VICE News. "We really need to have a concerted global effort to keep them around."Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger