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      Shark Attacks on the Rise

June 21, 2000

By Larry O'Hanlon, News

Shark attacks are on the rise, but an individual's chance of getting attacked is growing less, say shark researchers.

There are about 75 shark attacks each year worldwide, 10 of which are fatalities, said shark researcher George Burgess of the University of Florida in Gainesville

It's not the number of sharks or an increase in shark aggression that's causing more attacks ó it's more people.

They are actually fewer sharks today, but the overwhelming growth in the human population puts more people in the water, increasing encounters with sharks, said Burgess at this week's meeting of the American Elasmobranch Society in Mexico.

The flip side is that as more people spend time in the water, an individual's chance of being the object of an attack is lessened, said Burgess.

Director of the International Shark Attack File, Burgess is part of a group of researchers who are learning more about what makes a shark bite by studying the more than 3000 shark attacks that have been investigated over the last several decades worldwide.

"The ultimate goal of keeping a detailed shark attack file, as itís called, is to tease out the patterns of shark attacks, so that the ever increasing numbers of water-loving people can avoid being mistaken for food," said Burgess.

"Most shark attacks appear to be a case of mistaken identity," said Burgess. Often attacks are under conditions where the water is murky and there is small baitfish around to attract the predator, he says. Most shark attacks are by small sharks that, for instance, mistook a foot for a fish.

Researchers say that some attacks can be avoided by following a few rules: steer clear of murky water or water filled with small fish; avoid splashing around, which sounds like a distressed animal to a shark; and avoid swimming in the early morning hours when sharks are more active.

But sharks are curious animals, willing to try out new things, said shark behavior enthusiast Erich Ritter of Green Marine, a shark organization in Miami.

"We are probably an unknown to object to (sharks)," he said, and their curiosity about us could contribute to attacks.

Besides water conditions and time of day, scientists have looked at such things as the colors of clothing what else was going on nearby and to try and find the patterns ó patterns that vary among the different shark species.

Eventually Burgess hopes they will be able to predict shark attack conditions so as to keep people out of harms way. "We all think we are making a lot of progress, but we have a long way to go."

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