Many people think that shark attacks happen regularly and are usually fatal, but they are actually quite rare and most victims survive.
Movies and sensationalized media stories create the impression that sharks are avid man-eaters, but Rob Stewart’s award-winning documentary, Sharkwater has recently challenged such stereotypes. Even Peter Benchley, Jaws author, now believes that sharks are misunderstood, but the view that humans are a shark’s favourite prey persists.
Shark Attacks are Usually Cases of Mistaken Identity
Sharks rarely attack people and when they do, it’s usually a case of mistaken identity. Sharks may mistake a person for an injured fish or other animal. In such cases the shark bites, realizes its mistake, and swims away.
Cases of mistaken identity are particularly likely to occur in murky waters where visibility is poor. A person paddling out on a surfboard may resemble a swimming fish, and a scuba diver in a wetsuit may appear to be a seal.
Although shark statistics are somewhat variable from one source to the next, a review of the available statistics suggests that 80%-90% of those attacked by sharks survive. In the case of fatal shark attacks, people are more likely to die because they bleed to death from single bites than because the shark has come back to finish the job. Most shark attacks are single bites, and often no flesh is even removed. The most common injury is a laceration to the leg.
The Likelihood of a Human being Attacked by a Shark
How likely are shark attacks? Overall, beachgoers are far more likely to sustain sunburns, jellyfish stings, sunstroke, or cuts from shells than to be attacked by sharks. The following statistics, provided by the Florida Museum of Natural History, put the risk of shark attack into perspective:
- The likelihood of being killed by a shark is approximately 1 in 3,748,067.
- Sharks kill fewer than 10 people each year.
- In 2003, in the United States, 1 person died in a shark attack, whereas 11 died from fireworks accidents, 47 were killed by lightening, 273 died of heat exposure, 3,306 drowned, 19,456 were poisoned accidentally, 44,757 were killed in car crashes, and 652,486 succumbed to heart disease.
These statistics indicate that an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise are more dangerous than anything else.
There are more than 375 shark species, the majority of which are currently in danger of extinction due to shark finning and other unsustainable fishing methods. Only about 5% of shark species have been implicated in attacks on people; most sharks are frightened of people and pose no risk whatsoever.
The Likelihood of a Shark being Attacked by a Human
Each year, between 100 and 200 million sharks are killed by humans through the cruel practice of finning, as bycatch in unsustainable fishing methods, and for the creation of tourist trinkets such as shark’s tooth necklaces and phony medicinal cures. As a result, sharks are endangered, and many species may be extinct within a decade. The widespread slaughter of sharks threatens the survival of marine ecosystems and the livelihood of those in many sustainable fishing communities.
For more information on sharks, see the main Sharks page.
- AdoptaShark.com. (2009). “FAQ.” Iemanya Oceanica.
- BBCNews.co.uk. (22 May 2008). “Sharks Swim Closer to Extinction.”
- EnchantedLearning.com. (1998). “Shark Senses.”
- Burgess, George H., International Shark Attack File, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida. (n.d.). “The Relative Risk of Shark Attack to Humans Compared to Other Risks” and “How, When, & Where Sharks Attack.” FLMNH.UFL.edu.
- Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Shark Attack File. (1991). “Shark Attacks in Perspective.” [Reprinted, with emendations, from: Burgess, G.H. 1991. Shark attack and the International Shark Attack File, pp. 101-105. In: Gruber, S.H. (ed.). 1990. Discovering Sharks, American Littoral Society, Highlands, New Jersey]. FLMNH.UFL.edu.
- IRIN, Humanitarian News and Analysis, a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (4 December 2008). “Madagascar: Too Few Sharks is a Bad Thing.” IRINNews.org.
- Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. (2009). “Defending Sharks.” SeaShepherd.org.
- Sharkwater.com. (2009). “Shark Education.”