Shark Attacks Were Down in 2001, Believe It or Not

Despite what seemed like an epidemic of shark attacks last summer, the number of attacks for 2001 was actually a bit less than for the previous year, a study released Monday shows.

University of Florida researchers documented 76 unprovoked attacks around the world in 2001, compared to 85 in 2000. In terms of fatalities, there were five in 2001 and 12 the year before.

Attacks in American waters did go up — from 54 to 55. But Florida, which consistently has the most attacks of any state, dropped from 38 to 37, said George Burgess, head of the university research center that produces the yearly International Shark Attack File.

The other eighteen U.S. attacks for 2001 broke down into six for South Carolina, four for Hawaii, two each for California, North Carolina and Texas, and one each for Alabama and Virginia.

"Last year was anything but an average year, but that's because it was more like the summer of the media feeding frenzy," Burgess said.

Normally dormant coverage of shark attacks suddenly took over the national media in July after 8-year-old Jesse Arbogast was mauled by a bull shark a few feet from shore in Pensacola, Fla.

The shark bit off Jesse's right arm and a large part of one of his legs, but the boy's uncle wrestled the shark out of the water, pulled the arm out of its mouth and beat the shark to death. Surgeons were able to reattach Jesse's arm, but severe blood loss left the Mississippi boy brain-damaged.

Weeks later, a 10-year-old boy was fatally mauled in the Virginia Beach, Va., surf. Two days after that, a shark killed a man and gravely injured his girlfriend off a North Carolina beach.

"On top of that, Mother Nature cooperated kind of nicely with the press, with a series of incidents that occurred about every two weeks," Burgess said.

Most of the year's injuries were minor, but shark attacks figured prominently in media coverage for weeks.

Time magazine published a cover story titled "Summer of the Shark," and questions were raised over whether shark-feeding diving trips were making sharks more apt to target humans.

In truth, it was really the Summer of Slow News, and speculation about Rep. Gary Condit's alleged affair with missing Washington intern Chandra Levy, itself of dubious journalistic value, eventually eclipsed the shark coverage as the rate of attacks slowed.

In November, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to ban shark feeding, saying the practice by some scuba boat operators could be altering the animals' natural behavior.

The commissioners emphasized, however, that there was no evidence connecting the feedings to the attacks.

Since 1994, the number of Florida attacks has exceeded 20 in every year except 1996, according to Burgess' records. Between 1960 and 1994, the number of attacks never exceeded 20 and rarely exceeded 10.

Burgess said the gradual upswing in attacks over the past decades is due to humans spending more time in the water and more reliable reporting when there is an attack.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.