GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Shark attacks worldwide dipped last year to their lowest level in five years and surfers remain their favorite target, a University of Florida researcher reported Thursday.
Last year saw 59 shark attacks around the world, compared to 71 in 2007.
George Burgess, an ichthyologist and director of the International Shark Attack File, which is housed at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History, said there were four fatal attacks in 2008, which is about average. Only one death was reported in 2007, a two-decade low.
Two of the deaths were in Mexico, one was in Australia and one was in the United States.
Burgess believes the recession may be a contributing factor in the decline in shark attacks.
"I can't help but think that contributing to the reduction may have been the reticence of some people to take holidays and go to the beach for economic reasons," Burgess said in a news release.
Another factor, Burgess said, is a sharp decline in shark populations due to commercial fishing. In some areas, the number of sharks is down to 10 percent of the original populations.
"We've got a lot less sharks than in the past," Burgess said.
Weather may have played a role in some attacks.
La Nina brings water masses and deep ocean creatures closer to shore and was probably a factor in the deaths of two male surfers and an injury to a third in less than a month along Mexico's Pacific coast resort area.
A 66-year-old man was killed while swimming at Solana Beach, Calif., while the Australian death involved a 16-year-old, attacked along the country's eastern coast.
The number of shark attacks in the United States, dropped from 50 in 2007 to 41 last year, Burgess said. Of those, 32 were in Florida, the same as the previous year, followed by North Carolina and South Carolina with three each; Hawaii with two and California with one.
Volusia County, Fla., continued its dubious distinction of the world's shark bite capital with 22 attacks, its highest yearly total since 2001. Most of them were in the surf haven of New Smyrna Beach on the central Atlantic coast.
Surfers accounted for 57 percent of the attacks, followed by 36 percent for swimmers and waders and 8 percent for divers, Burgess said. The figures are rounded up, which is why they total more than 100 percent.
"Surfers are the heavy favorites, largely because the splashing of the arms and particularly the kicking of the feet at the water's surface where visibility is poor and is provocative to the sharks," Burgess said.
The sharks interpret the splashing to normal activities of its prey, fish, he said.
Surfers are also not as affected by the economy, Burgess said.
"All they need is a board and a way to get to the beach for a free day's fun," he said.
Because of the economy, Burgess expects another decline in attacks in 2009, but over the long term, he expects a gradual increase from one decade to the next.