USA: Shark attacks in Florida: Why the predatory fish are better than their reputation

As spring arrives in the northern hemisphere of the world and the first sun seekers are already on the beaches in particularly warm regions, headlines are branding Florida as the world's shark attack hotspot.

USA: Shark attacks in Florida: Why the predatory fish are better than their reputation

As spring arrives in the northern hemisphere of the world and the first sun seekers are already on the beaches in particularly warm regions, headlines are branding Florida as the world's shark attack hotspot. In fact, according to experts, a quarter of all shark attacks recorded last year occurred in the US state. Scientists are trying to combat scaremongering: The risk of being bitten by a shark is extremely low, even in Florida, they argue.

The University of Florida counted 69 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide in its 2023 statistics, 16 of them off the coast of the US state. Given that, according to official statistics, there were 135 million bathers on Florida's beaches last year, this number is still comparatively small.

Despite the statistically low risk of being bitten by a shark, the fear of the predatory fish with sharp teeth runs deep. Films like “Jaws” and the US documentary series “Shark Week”, which has been running for decades, continue to fuel them.

"When sharks hunt fish in the water, every now and then people get in their way and the sharks make a mistake," says Gavin Naylor, a shark expert at the University of Florida and one of the authors of the annual shark report. If sharks really wanted to attack people, it would be child's play for them, says Naylor: "Humans are basically something like sausages floating in the water." But instead of attacking, sharks generally avoided people.

The shallow subtropical waters off Florida's beaches are rich in nutrients and therefore also in prey fish, which is why they attract many sharks. Eight people were attacked by sharks off the coast of New Smyrna Beach in Volusia County last year.

This earned the place the infamous nickname “shark bite capital of the world.” The sea there is popular with surfers, but the murky waters limit the predators' visibility, increasing the likelihood that they will accidentally snap at a human.

Shark bites are like plane crashes - shocking but rare, says Bruce Adams, who lives in New Smyrna Beach and encountered the predatory fish several times while surfing. He regrets that the animals' bad reputation is the result of sensationalism: "This boosts sales," he says, commenting on the activities of resourceful sellers who sell T-shirts with the inscription "Shark Bite Capital of The Word" in New Smyrna Beach.

Most Florida swimmers have probably been in the water with sharks without knowing it, says shark researcher Joe Miguez, another author of the annual report. "They don't really want anything to do with us."

Some people even go to great lengths to counter the predatory fish. In Jupiter, about 150 kilometers north of Miami, Jonathan Campbell has gone on more than 500 dives with people who wanted to swim with sharks. "You see sharks in movies and they're scary monsters. But in the water they're more like shy puppies," he says.

According to a recent study, the number of sharks worldwide has declined by 70 percent since 1970. Perhaps humans are a greater danger to the predatory fish than they are to him. “We should focus more on protecting these animals instead of being afraid that they will come after us,” says researcher Miguez.

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