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Media Shark!

Expert says publicity over attacks overblown

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 5, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Don't blame the sharks for the perceived rise in attacks this summer, says an expert. Instead, he says blame the media sharks hunting for a good story in a slow news cycle.

The dramatic shark attack on the little boy in Pensacola, Fla., in July, when his uncle saved him and officials retrieved the boy's severed arm from the shark's mouth, prompted extensive news coverage that hasn't stopped, says Hans Walters, animal department supervisor at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island.

"The story of that spectacular rescue was the stuff of Hollywood," and has led to a surge of unwarranted media attention on sharks since, he says. Indeed, Time magazine featured the predator on its cover -- in a "Jaws"-like pose -- on an issue heralding the "Summer of the Shark." Last month, pictures of hundreds of sharks swimming together in the Gulf of Mexico frightened many Americans although experts say such a gathering is typical. Then last week, two people were killed by sharks in shallow waters off beaches in Virginia and North Carolina.

"As horrible as these incidents are, they are, fortunately, very, very, very rare," Walters says. "You probably have more of a chance of winning the Powerball lottery than you do of being attacked by a shark."

This year, in fact, the 51 reported shark attacks worldwide are less than last year's 79, says the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), which compiles information with the University of Florida. Two-thirds of the attacks this year have occurred in North America.

However, the ISAF says the number of shark attacks reported annually has increased steadily since the 1980s, from an average of 38 in 1988 to 54 during the 1990s, due to human population growth and better reporting. At the same time, the ISAF says the population of sharks has been declining due to over-fishing.

All of which leads officials to suggest caution when dealing with year-to-year shark attack estimates. Human-shark interaction varies considerably, depending on how many people vacation in ocean areas, temperatures that bring more people into the water, and ocean conditions that affect sharks, they say.

"For instance, there could be a lot of food [near shore in Florida] that would draw the sharks," says Joe Cordero of the National Marine Fisheries in San Diego.

"Wherever there is water, there are sharks in the water, and wherever there is warm water, there are people in the water," Walters says.

Despite the very low risk of a shark attack, Walters says swimmers should exercise caution.

He says don't go swimming alone, and it's better not to swim early in the morning or late at night when sharks are active. Also, he says if you see schools of fish jumping or seabirds diving for fish, stay away because sharks could be feeding in the area as well.

But don't worry too much.

He says, "Think of the tens of millions of people swimming on any given summer day, and that there have been 51 shark attacks in the world this year. It gets to be something not worth bothering about."

What To Do

Be wary of sharks, but if you're concerned about water safety, your risk of drowning is much higher, so swim carefully.

For comprehensive information about shark attacks, visit the ISAF. The habits of sharks and why they attack are described by the Center for Shark Research.

SOURCES: Interviews with Hans Walters, animal department supervisor, New York Aquarium at Coney Island, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Joe Cordero, National Marine Fisheries, San Diego; ISAF
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