Australia had more fatal shark attacks in 2014 than any other country, according to a global study released by the University of Florida.
However, the two deaths and the 11 overall unprovoked attacks by sharks in Australian waters last year were in line with the average over the past decade.
George Burgess, curator of world shark attack data at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, says the steady numbers in Australia are “often lost in the resultant media feeding frenzy” when an attack occurs.
He says beachgoers are more likely to win the lottery than encounter a shark. ”It’s amazing, given the billions of hours humans spend in the water, how uncommon attacks are,” Burgess said.
The report describes the Western Australian government’s cull of endangered white sharks as “ill-conceived”. South Africa had a “low contact” year, with one fatal incident and two overall attacks, well below the recent 10-year average of 4.3 attacks per year.
There were single incidents reported in New Zealand, Reunion, Japan, Spain, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and the Galapagos Islands. Three people died worldwide from shark attacks in 2014, far below the average of 6.3 deaths per year over the past decade.
Burgess attributes the downward trend in fatalities to advances in beach safety, medical care and awareness of how to avoid attacks. There were 72 attacks worldwide, down from 75 in 2013.
Australia’s 11 attacks were lower than its 12.5 attacks per year average over the past 10 years (2004-13) and the two fatalities were in line with its 1.5 yearly average over the same time period.
The Australian Shark Attack File, released with Florida’s international study, was compiled by curator John West for the Taronga Conservation Society Australia. There were four shark attacks in South Australia, three in NSW, two in Western Australia, and single incidents in Queensland and Victoria.
In the 1990s, the average number of 6.5 unprovoked cases per year in Australia has risen to an average of 13 per year over the past decade. The 11 cases reported in 2014 were below the 10-year average.
In Australia in 2014, there were seven unprovoked attacks on surfboard and bodyboard riders, three on swimmers (one fatal), and one fatal attack on a snorkeller. White sharks were involved in eight of the 11 cases of unprovoked attacks in Australia with six on surfboard riders, one fatal attack on a swimmer, and one fatal attack on a snorkeller.
A bull shark attacked a swimmer, inflicting severe injuries, and a wobbegong caused minor injuries to a swimmer in shallow water. A suspected bronze whaler bit a surfboard rider on the leg, leaving only minor teeth marks.
The attacks in Australia were spread across the year, with six in cooler winter months and five in warmer summer months. Unprovoked attacks are defined as incidents where an attack on a live human by a shark occurs in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark.
Burgess said the overall trend decade on decade has been a steady increase in attacks worldwide, but not because sharks are getting a taste for humans. As the human population and the popularity of aquatic pastimes grow, humans are more likely to be where sharks are feeding.
“I am willing to predict that there will be more attacks in the second decade of this century than there were in the first,” Burgess said. Worldwide in 2014, surfers and others participating in board sports accounted for 65 per cent of cases, with swimmers/waders at 32 per cent, and snorkellers, three per cent.
There were no attacks on scuba divers in 2014.