A sequel to 'Summer of the Shark'?
Researchers downplay reported wave of attacks as hype
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Shark attacks will be on the rise again this summer, but not because there are more of the ocean predators, experts said Tuesday.
"The reality is it's the number of people in the water that cause shark attacks," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File in Gainesville, Florida. Administered by the American Elasmobranch Society and Florida Museum of Natural History, the file is a compilation of all known shark attacks.
Burgess joined other shark researchers Tuesday in Washington to try to allay public fears about sharks and make a case for their conservation.
"Sharks have swum probably within 15 feet of every one of us if we've ever been in the water," Burgess said, "but most of the time sharks don't want any part of us because humans are not a normal part of their diet."
Burgess said as the world population grows -- along with the amount of people in the water -- the number of shark attacks is likely to rise as well. But the chances of being attacked are not increasing, he said.
He emphasized that people should keep in mind that stepping into the ocean is a wilderness experience.
"It's not the generic equivalent of entering our backyard pool," Burgess said. "We wouldn't think about going hiking in the Rockies ... and not considering the fact that there are mountain lions and bears.
Last summer, shark hysteria may have soared to its highest levels since "Jaws" hit movie screens in the mid-1970s.
But the "Summer of the Shark," as Time magazine dubbed it, wasn't as severe as the hype suggested, experts said.
The 76 unprovoked attacks recorded worldwide in 2001 was nine less than the 85 noted the previous year. Deaths also dropped to five in 2001 -- including three in the United States -- from 12 in 2000, according to the International Shark Attack File.
Media attention began to focus on sharks last summer when 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast was attacked July 6 at a beach near Pensacola, Florida. His right arm had to be reattached.
Deaths occurred in the United States (Florida, North Carolina and Virginia), Cape Verde Islands and Mozambique.
Others at the Washington event stressed the importance of sharks to the ocean ecosystem and in biological research, including cancer.
Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, said that millions of sharks have been lost from the ocean each year and their numbers have been dwindling for decades.
"If you remove sharks from the food web, in certain cases there's nothing else to fill in there," Hueter said.
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