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Shark Attacks Along East Coast Climb in Summer Months as Water Temperature Increases

There has been an increase in the amount of shark attacks in the United States during the last decade, with a large number of these incidents occurring along the Atlantic coast.

According to the International Shark Attack File, we have seen a drastic increase in the amount of reported shark attacks since 1900, with each decade having more attacks than the previous one. In 2014, out of 130 incidents of alleged shark-human interactions worldwide, 72 of these incidents represented confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks on humans.

In addition, North American waters had the highest number of shark incidents in the world in 2014 with a total of 45. These accounted for 62.5 percent of all attacks across the globe. Of those attacks, 39 out of 45 occurred along Atlantic coast beaches.

June 21 marks the astronomical start of summer, and residents living up and down the East Coast will flock to the beaches to enjoy the breeze and soak up the sun's rays.

However, for some beach-goers living in North Carolina, the trip to the beach turned tragic when shark attacks left a 12-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy seriously injured on June 13 in two separate incidents. A third incident occurred in North Carolina on June 11, when a 13-year-old girl suffered minor injuries after a shark bit her boogie board near Ocean Isle Beach.

A 10-year-old boy was also bitten on his calf by a shark off the coast of Cocoa Beach in Florida earlier this month. In all of these cases, the victims were very close to the shore and were all struck while swimming in waist-deep water.

By definition, a shark attack is classified as an interaction between humans and sharks that results in significant or life-threatening injuries or death.

Dan Abel, a senior lecturer in Marine Science at the University of Coastal Carolina, who has been researching and studying sharks off the coast of North Carolina for more than 20 years states, said that many of the attacks are actually accidental attacks by the sharks themselves.

"Sharks living in the Atlantic have a wide variety of prey. Some of them eat fish and other types of seafood while others eat rays and sea turtles that is typically found very close to the shoreline," Abel said. "In most of the cases of shark attacks, the victims are bitten in their extremities because the sharks didn't see clearly and confused a human limb for actual prey."

For the most part, the movement of sharks during the summer months is based upon the water temperature. During this time of year, species of adult sharks migrate to waters that are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit and can migrate as far as New York and Cape Cod in the summer. During the winter months, they migrate as far south as the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.

In summer months, bonnethead (a small hammerhead species), Sphyrna tiburo, are very abundant in near-shore waters. Sandbar shark, Carcharhinus plumbeus, are relatively stout sharks that can be common in near-shore and estuarine waters. Although they can be large, they are not typically viewed as dangerous, according to Erin Burge, an associate professor at Coastal Carolina in Marine Biology.

The reason shark attacks are more prevalent on the East Coast is due to its location and water temperature in the summer.

"The Atlantic has a much broader continental shelf, and due to the fact that ocean temperatures are in the 70s this time of year which is much warmer than the Pacific, the amount of sharks closer to the shoreline is larger," explained Abel.

Burge also noted that people who swim in the ocean on any given day are higher on U.S. Atlantic beaches than any other location in the nation.

"Since we enjoy being in the water and at the beach this time of year, it seems logical that the number of interactions between people and sharks, which are always here, will be higher," Burge said. "Atlantic beaches have many more swimmers in summer months than U.S. Pacific beaches."

Picturing a shark's wide-open mouth and sharp teeth might seem terrifying to most, especially with the recent shark attacks, but most sharks are in fact harmless to humans and do not pose a threat to those heading to the beach throughout the summer.

"A lot of people take it for granted that sharks can be near to the coastline at any given time," Burge said. "Although many species of sharks may seem as very dangerous, the vast majority of them poses no risk to us."