Don't be scared of shark attacks

Story highlights

  • George H. Burgess: The headlines lately have screamed terrifying news about shark attacks
  • Before you start panicking, remember that shark bites are few and far between, he says
  • People should take steps to co-exist with sharks, Burgess says

George H. Burgess is director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, where he curates the International Shark Attack File. He consults for Nat Geo WILD on "SharkFest," a weeklong event that begins Sunday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The headlines lately have screamed terrifying news about vicious shark attacks.

Last month, a man in his late 60s was attacked by a shark off Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. It was the seventh shark attack in North Carolina this year. In mid-June, two teenagers lost limbs in separate attacks.
Having so many shark attacks take place so close in time and locale is extremely rare. Fortunately, the victims survived, and good people everywhere wish them swift and thorough recoveries.
    With every shark encounter broadcast over social media in photos and comments, it's easy for mainstream media to harvest them for round-the-clock coverage. People may think that sharks -- in rapidly increasing numbers -- are prowling virtually every beach, just waiting to feast on human flesh.
    George H. Burgess
    While "man-eating sharks" may seem like a widespread threat to health and safety, shark attacks are extremely unusual. You have a one in 11.5 million chance of being attacked by a shark in the United States.
    Far more mundane things are more fatal. For example, more than 15,000 people died while cycling between 1990 and 2009. During that period, only 14 died from shark attacks. Even lightning strikes are more lethal -- killing about 40 people annually.
    Despite the astronomical odds of ever running afoul of sharks, public officials often overreact after attacks such as those in North Carolina. In fact, authorities there announced that sharks observed "acting aggressive," including swimming within 100 feet of shore, would be euthanized.
    Before we start killing sharks, let's all relax. Shark bites are few and far between. They occur for reasons overlooked amid the breathless broadcasts and suspenseful scenes from "Jaws."
    Unprovoked attacks -- when sharks strike without being trapped in fishing gear, purposely attracted with food or otherwise disturbed -- have slowly grown over the years. But that's only because more people are in the water than ever before.
    The human population is growing. And each year, more people visit beaches, surf, snorkel, scuba dive and otherwise find themselves in sharks' natural habitat. In a three-month period during 2013, 26 million tourists reportedly visited Florida. It's a good bet that most went to the beach.
    Even economics play a role. There were 29 unprovoked shark confrontations in 2009, a recession year when many Americans were too busy trying to keep their homes to spend time in the tides. In these somewhat better times, however, more Americans have gone to the shore. In 2013, there were 47 attacks, and 52 last year.
    In short, more people in the water mean more total shark bites. However, the rate of shark attacks has not increased. In fact, it has actually decreased. Because of overfishing, there are less sharks in the water these days. But thanks to fishery management and conservation efforts, the number of sharks is expected to increase in the years ahead. Rather than panic, people should take steps to co-exist with these creatures.
    For starters, avoid swimming at dawn and dusk, when sharks tend to feed. Stick together in groups and stay out of the water during and after storms. Aside from dangerous surf and rip currents, decreased water visibility can confuse sharks, prompting mistaken-identity bites.
    Do not swim near seals, where fishing is occurring, or near other things that sharks find tasty. Sharks can sniff out blood, so don't swim with open wounds. And leave your bling on the beach -- sharks are curious about bright, shiny objects, so don't lure them with baubles.
    Policymakers have a role to play, too. In Orange County, California, authorities have started to experiment with drones, a potentially useful tool. Nothing replaces lifeguards, but patrolling beaches from overhead and warning patrons when sharks are close could help with beach safety.
    Plenty of lower-tech steps can also make rare shark attacks even rarer. For instance, officials should keep swimmers far apart from pier and beach fishermen. Sharks that have become delighted by the presence of baitfish or irritated after biting into hooks sometimes share their unwelcome excitement with humans.
    Man's future relationship with sharks isn't up to them; it's up to us. We are eco-visitors to their homes. Changes in the status quo will have to be made on the human side rather than the shark side. Always remember: They have bigger teeth, but we have bigger brains.