Worldwide Shark Attack Report

3 March 2009 By Kelly Sanford

The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) is the world's most recognized organization on scientifically monitoring all known shark attacks on human beings. It’s composed of some of the world’s foremost authorities in the scientific study of sharks, skates and rays.

On February 20, 2009, the ISAF released its shark attack summary for the previous year. According to the report, “The ISAF investigated 118 alleged incidents of shark/human interaction occurring worldwide in 2008.”

In evaluating these attacks, the ISAF intends to closely monitor the incidents classified as “unprovoked.” For the ISAF to classify an attack as unprovoked, it must occur “on a live human by a shark…in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark.” Last year, half of the 118 shark attack reports were confirmed unprovoked attacks.

The ISAF explains, “Provoked attacks usually occur when a human initiates physical contact with a shark.” It goes on to clarify such provocations as, “a diver bit after grabbing a shark; a fisher[man] bit while removing a shark from a net; attacks on [spear-fishermen] and those feeding sharks.”

However, other odd and frankly morbid incidents are lumped in with the provoked attacks. According to the report, “[Of the] 59 incidents not accorded unprovoked status in 2008…19 [were] provoked attacks, two [were cases] of air/sea disaster, 11 [were] cases of sharks biting marine vessels, seven incidents [were] dismissed as non-shark attacks, two scavenge incidents [were confirmed] involving post mortem bites, and [in] 18 cases insufficient information was available to determine if an unprovoked attack had occurred.”

The number of unprovoked attacks reported in 2008 is down from 71 in 2007. The ISAF advises that fluctuations in the number of attacks can be significant from year to year based on a number of variables, but reports, “Despite continued human population growth and increased interest in aquatic recreation, the number of shark attacks has generally leveled off, averaging 63 per year worldwide since reaching a high of 79 in 2000.”

Likely reasons for this leveling off, according to the ISAF, include a decreased overall number of sharks, whose populations are being decimated by overfishing; fewer people in the water due to a decline in tourism in the post-9/11 economy and an increased knowledge about human/shark interactions.

Of the 59 unprovoked attacks in 2008, only four resulted in a fatality – which is on par with the span from 2001 to 2008, when the yearly average was 3.9 deaths. Of last year’s unprovoked fatalities, two occurred in Mexico, one in Australia and one in the U.S. (in California). More than half of the unprovoked attacks (41 to be exact) occurred in the U.S., 32 of which were in the state of Florida alone.

In its conclusion, the ISAF report states, “If one is actually under attack by a shark, we advise a proactive response. Hitting a shark on the nose, ideally with an inanimate object, usually results in the shark temporarily curtailing its attack. One should try to get out of the water at this time. If this is not possible, repeat [blows] to the snout may offer temporary restraint, but the result will likely become less effective. If a shark actually bites, we suggest clawing at its eyes and gills, two sensitive areas. One should not act passively if under attack – sharks respect size and power.”