Expert: Overfishing of sharks factor in decline of attacks
By LAUREN SONIS and JIM HAUG
FLAGLER BEACH -- Jeff Weakley remembers paddling on his surfboard past the breakers when he heard a splash in the water. A shark grabbed his foot, shook it, then let go.
After 25 stitches and a month and a half on crutches, the surfer returned to the waves.
That was in 1994. And Weakley, now the editor of Florida Sportsman Magazine in Stuart, said the bite "was not a serious injury, nor was it a life-altering experience."
Still, Weakley finds it interesting that he is among the few reported shark-bite victims in Flagler County.
The International Shark Attack File lists four "unprovoked" shark bites for Flagler County. A "provoked attack" would be when a diver is bitten while feeding a shark or an angler is bitten while taking the hook from a shark's mouth.
In 1993, Grace Martin of Palm Coast suffered the first Flagler wounds to make the file. Biologist George Burgess, the director of the shark research program at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, said the marks indicated it was a shark bite.
And surfers Robert Fuller and Johnny Bowden earned the last Flagler entries, both on May 31, 1997.
Meanwhile, Volusia County holds the highest rank in the world, totaling 193, according to the file. None of the bites recorded in the file for Volusia or Flagler was fatal. However, a 19-year-old woman was killed by a shark while trying to swim to shore from a sinking catamaran at least six, possibly nine miles off Ormond Beach in August 1981, according to News-Journal files.
Volusia County normally gets a lot of shark bites because its beaches attract so many swimmers and surfers, Burgess said. Sharks often confuse people for baitfish.
Sharks, however, are known to stop their attack once they realize their prey is human. Most of the bites in this area come from blacktip or spinner sharks.
In good news for surfers, shark attacks appear to be declining.
There were 12 shark attacks last year in Volusia County, compared to the high of 22 in 2001. So far this year, there have been five.
Burgess cited the over-fishing of sharks as a factor in the wane of shark attacks. Scientists estimate that the world's shark populations have declined by as much as 50 percent to 90 percent during recent decades.
But he cautioned against looking for a trend so early in the year.
"Don't get over-excited," Burgess said. "We're only at the halfway point of 2007. The summer season is really just getting started."
September is typically a very busy month for shark bites.
Most of the Volusia bites occur in one area.
Capt. Scott Petersohn, spokesman for the Volusia County Beach Patrol, said the bites documented just south of Ponce de Leon Inlet account for 80 percent of the bites in Volusia.
Petersohn said the brown, tannic water, murky from decaying plants, also plays a role, making it harder for sharks to distinguish human body parts from fish.
And Burgess said the erratic, fish-like splashing by some surfers attracts the marine predators who feed on baitfish.
Flagler Beach lifeguard Andy Kennedy said Flagler County lacks an inlet where lots of baitfish pool. He said surfers frequent Flagler Beach for the breakers by the pier.
-- News Researcher Helen Morey contributed to this report.
2007 Shark Attacks, as of July 9
14 in the United States
10 in Florida
5 in Volusia County
2006 shark attack numbers
38 in the United States
23 In Florida
12 in Volusia County
Source: International Shark Attack File, University of Florida; Volusia County Beach Patrol
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