This week is Discovery Channel’s most popular program Shark Week, with Jack Ass, Top Gun Flying Sharks and sensational great white sharks gnashing their teeth at caged monkeys. These programs, like the media, over-uses the word shark attack, when in fact, in most cases with sharks involving a human, no injury is involved. Investigators of white shark- human interactions use the term encounter, incident or bite rather than the more inflammatory word attack. These programs give the impression that the ocean is shark infested- instead of shark inhabited– and every shark has humans on the menu.
In fact, encounters with sharks are very rare, even in regions where we work with a seasonal aggregation of large white sharks at the Farallon Islands. Since 2000, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CA DFW) has recorded an average of 1.8 encounters (a bite or a bump) involving sharks per year, with one human fatality every five years on average.
At the time of this writing, since 1950, there have been 203 shark incidents* in California involving all species of sharks, at least 180 of which involved white sharks. Of those, 15 were fatal and all involved white sharks as the biter in an unprovoked encounter.
Most white shark incidents with humans are not predatory attempts, but rather the result of exploratory bites from sharks. In many cases, such as shark feeding for sport, amusement or photography have provoked a shark bite. Unprovoked bites are defined as incidents in which a bite on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark. Provoked bites occur when a human initiates interaction with a shark in some way. Bites from fishermen handling sharks or while spearfishing are considered provoked.
The CA DFW report the number of incidents involving white sharks and humans have grown each decade since the 1960s, peaking in the 2010s with 55. This trend likely is associated with the increase in the shark population and the huge increase in surfing and swimming in California waters.
Although the white shark population off California is increasing, statistically the number of actual shark bites on humans has not, and according to a 2015 Stanford study, the risk has actually declined in the last 50 years. The study by Francesco Ferretti et al indicates that in the highest risk group, surfers, have a 1-in-17 million chance of being bitten by a white shark in California.
Sure, the photography is incredible and the content is exciting on Shark Week, but most of us who actually spend our time in the ocean already know that sharks are cool, and humans are the ones to be feared, not the sharks.