Florida shark attacks drop during coronavirus pandemic

Beachgoers urged to not let their guard down

The coronavirus pandemic had one silver lining this year: fewer shark attacks.

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The coronavirus pandemic had one silver lining this year: fewer shark attacks.

With fewer people in the water to bite, shark attacks have dropped worldwide, likely because of all the closed beaches and widespread quarantines, experts at the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File suspect.

News 6 partner Florida Today reports that from Jan. 1 to June 18, there were only 18 unprovoked shark bites confirmed worldwide, down from 24 over the same time period in 2019 and 28 in 2018. Seven of this year’s bites were in the United States, two in Florida waters. Three unprovoked attacks resulted in deaths — two in Australia and one in California, up from last year’s total of two deaths. Two bites happened in Hawaii, with single bites also in California, Delaware and North Carolina.

“The fact that we’re in the teens at this time of year, with only two bites in Florida, is a sign that something else is at play,” Tyler Bowling, manager of the ISAF, said in a release.

Said Bowling, “COVID-19 is the obvious answer, though there could be other factors.”

Florida had tallied eight bites by mid-June in 2019 and seven in 2018. This year, experts have confirmed two minor bites in the state thus far, one each in Duval and Brevard counties.

On April 7, Stacy Orosz was bitten on her foot and ankle by a shark while she and her husband paddled out past the break and were sitting on their surfboards about 10 a.m. near North First Street and North Second Street in Cocoa Beach. Orosz estimated the bite came from a 6-foot bull shark.

The ISAF experts already had been documenting an unusual decrease in shark bites in recent years. Last year’s 64 unprovoked attacks worldwide were a 22% drop from the most recent five-year average of 82 incidents annually. But this year’s numbers so far are an even more significant dip in the downward trend, Bowling said.

Comparing the past 20 years, this year ties 2005 for the lowest number of shark bites recorded from January through May, with 15 unprovoked attacks, compared with an average of about 25.

Bowling and Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s shark research program, investigate all human-shark interactions. They focus on bites initiated by a shark in its natural habitat with no human provocation.

“The East Coast has been pretty quiet, and that’s where we pick up blacktips and the occasional bull shark,” Bowling said.

A few additional shark incidents remain under investigation, he added, and bites can change classification as more information becomes available.

Many Florida beaches, parks and boat ramps closed during parts of March, April and May, with restrictions remaining in effect in some counties on activities such as sunbathing, beach-access parking and number of visitors.

While shark attacks are down, swimmers and surfers should not lower their guard, Bowling warned. Bite numbers tend to surge in July, the height of vacation season, he said, and September is the month that marks the beginning of the annual blacktip shark migration from the Carolinas to South Florida.

The chances of being bitten by a shark are extremely low, but ISAF offers recommendations on how to lower the risk of a shark attack or fend off an attacking shark, advising surfers to be especially careful on deserted beaches, and to keep a first aid kit and tourniquet on hand.

“The buddy system is always key,” he said. “You should always have someone with you or let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return.”

According to the International Shark Attack File, an average of 59,664 people die from the flu each year in the United States, which is a 1 in 63 risk of death during one’s lifetime. By comparison, there is a 1 in 3.7 million risk of dying from a shark attack during one’s lifetime.