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Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

Jaws Returns?

Vivian L. Bishay

"An 8-year-old boy was in critical condition Saturday after surgeons reattached one of his arms, retrieved from the gullet of a shark wrestled ashore by the child's uncle." (1). The bull shark attack made headline news across the country. We all knew of the little boy that sustained major internal damage; I followed the case till his final release from the hospital many weeks later. I remember my initial reaction of anger and shock that this could happen to a little boy wading so close to the Pensacola coast. Then I was incredulous as I learned of the Crocodile Dundee uncle that pulled the seven-foot bull shark to shore. Finally, I wanted to know why. What was really going on down in Florida? Unsurprisingly, media sensationalism surrounding this incident saturated the news because of its unusual particulars. My impression of the situation is that this last of a string of recent attacks on the Florida coast is heightening the climate of apprehension and worry about sharks in a society that, for the most part, already views the species with such fear and panic so eloquently epitomized in JAWS I, II, and III. This web paper then, offered me a perfect opportunity to investigate this shark attack "phenomenon," its possible causes and resulting social as well as legislative reactions to it.

Prior to any research, but admittedly influenced by the media frenzy, I tossed around possible causes for the sudden spike in shark attack numbers. Were shark migratory paths shifting due to "environmental changes such as global warming"? (2). Were sharks "rebounding" as Time Magazine"s "Summer of the Shark" implied? Were sharks "not finding any food out in the deep anymore and coming into the shallows" (3), as many Florida charter boat captains steadfastly believe? Though there is support for several of these theories, most shark biologists question the validity of the shark attack "phenomenon" in the first place.

Shark biologists Rick Martin and Robert E. Heuter agree with George H. Burgess, head of the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) of the Florida Museum of Natural History, in blatantly denouncing the concept of an increase in shark attacks; "the basic perception that we"re having an exceptionally sharky year is wrong." Biologists point over and over again to overall annual world figures from recent years to prove their case. According to statistics from the ISAF, the global number of shark attacks is in fact down this year, 52 having been reported so far, while 2000 saw 79 for the entire year. (5).

In addition, scientists find rationale in such concepts as the Poisson burst or the "clustering of random, independent events." (4). As Rick Martin puts it, each shark attack should be looked at independently; like coin tosses, any string of attacks can be explained through probability theory. (6). Many scientists claim unfair press hype as another source of recent shark attack misconceptions. In past years, these incidents - including fatal ones - would have been local news stories. But since the aforementioned bull shark attack on Jessie Arbogast, the media has been more than willing to cover and make national news of all, including minor, attacks in and around Florida. As Burgess succinctly puts it, "it's a media frenzy, not a feeding frenzy." (2).

Although, these shark biologists support their claim more than effectively, I feel it is important to keep in mind a shark biologists' agenda (for lack of a better word). Would a more apathetic biologist have a slightly differing viewpoint? Opposing views are always significant in grasping the full picture and deriving one"s own opinions and conclusion. Scores of shark sightings off the coast of Florida cannot be denied. Fishermen who work day in day out on those waters feel "the sharks have been coming in closer to shore." (3). In New Smyrna Beach, small blacktips swam in front of people along the beach in ankle-deep water, while 100 yards offshore bull sharks fed. Hundreds of sharks were sighted off central Florida's west coast, bull sharks, hammerheads and nurse sharks were among those spotted. Rather than explain these near shore sightings, I feel many shark biologists are patently denying them. Article after article cited biologists focusing on global numbers for this year specifically rather than the Florida statistics or even long term statistics. A graph of shark attacks vs. population growth for Florida shows the last decade as the only one in which attacks actually surpassed population growth. (7). Though this information tells us nothing about this past summer, they are interesting long term statistics that reflect shark attack numbers throughout the world. ISAF listed 79 confirmed cases in 2000, compared to 58 in 1999 and only 37 a decade ago in 1990. (2).

Debate is stirring in some scientific circles and a number of theories have been given for the increase - ranging from environmental factors such as global warming to increased water sport popularity. Biologists that acknowledge a shift in shark attack numbers in Florida attribute it to human activity, "to millions more people going to the beach and the increasing popularity of water sports." (5). Last year a record 90 million people flocked to Florida"s resorts drawn by the increasingly popular diving and surfing. From the limited research I have done, and taking the entire spectrum of opinions into consideration, this seems to be the soundest theory. Another, more controversial theory, is that sharks are being lured into shallow water by specific feeding events set up for tourists. (2).

Often times, the most controversial of theories, no matter how shaky, receive the most media attention and yield the greatest influence. Burgess admitted that such feeding events might be an issue in other parts of the world. For example, the Bahamas has many organizations offering such events. However, in Florida there are few such operations, all small scale. Burgess' implication is that the Floridian operations have little to no influence on shark attacks in the area, yet recent proposals by the Wildlife Conservation Commission will have them banned. (2). Commission Chairman David Meehan admitted, "The dive tour operators have an excellent safety record," but criticized the practice of "taking animals that are equipped to be hunters and training them to rely on people for food handouts." (8). I don't question the Committee's mission, just its timing though officials insist that this first law regulating boating excursions was in no way related to the series of highly publicized shark attacks on the Florida coast. (9).

I think the laws we pass in this country are a good narrative of us as a people. Instead of making real attempts at uprooting the source of our society"s fears, they are conveniently quieted. I see these actions by the Conservation Commission first - as a promotion of an agenda at an opportune time and second - as the easy bandaide fix for a deep laceration, quieting irrational fears and emotions built up and propagated by the media and possibly misinformation; "shark attack is probably the most feared danger to man, surpassing even hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes in the minds of most beach users and sailors." (10).

WWW Sources

1) Boy "almost completely bled out", Associated Press posted July 7, 2001

2) Shark attacks: On the increase?, BBC News Online Sept. 5, 2001

3) Timing was right for shark attacks, MSNBC Sept. 4, 2001

4)Topics in shark biology

5) Scientists Say Frenzy Over Shark Attacks Is Unwarranted, William Broad

6) How, When, & Where Sharks Attack

7) Graphs of Shark Attacks vs. Population Growth Over the Past Decades: Florida.

8) Florida panel embraces ban on shark feeding, Thurston Hatcher Sept. 7, 2001

9) Florida Moves to Ban Shark Feeding , Reuters Sept. 7, 2001

10) Shark Attacks in Perspective .




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