Sharks are one of the most misunderstood species on the planet. They're unpredictable and have been portrayed as bloodthirsty killers in movies and media for decades.
But often they're just curious, and sometimes they mistake surfers for weak, dying prey floating on the surface, as explained by the organization One Ocean Diving.
Shark experts claim that 2020 was a particularly deadly year when it came to shark incidents. Despite the lower number of incidents worldwide, fatalities were disproportionately high. Especially in the surf community, where surfers experienced 61% of all bites worldwide in 2020, compared to 53% in 2019 and 2018 according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF).
The most recent report from ISAF summarized that, "the 2020 worldwide total of 57 confirmed unprovoked cases was lower than the most recent five-year average of 80 incidents annually. There were 13 shark related fatalities, 10 of which were confirmed to be unprovoked. This number is above the annual global average of 4 unprovoked fatalities per year."
Unprovoked just means that the human was in the shark's natural habitat, with no human provocation of the shark. Whereas a provoked attack occurs when a human initiates an interaction (ex: attempting to touch a shark while diving).
Why Are There Fewer Cases?
There are many potential explanations for these unique stats. The ISAF speculates that the observed drop in shark incidents can be attributed to COVID-19. Worldwide lock downs and quarantines prompted beach closures, slowed international and domestic travel, and generally reduced the number of humans in the water.
It is worth noting that due to the pandemic, accessibility to accurate shark incident numbers has been more difficult as reported by the ISAF.
An article published by Nature also states that "since 1970, the global abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has declined by 71% owing to an 18-fold increase in relative fishing pressure." This, as we know, means that shark populations are being ravaged by the fishing industries, disrupting their natural behaviors and ecosystems.
Why Are They More Fatal?
2020 was a bad year for white shark bites, which are often much more fatal given the power and size of the shark. The ISAF confirms that "white sharks were involved in at least 16 unprovoked bites in 2020, including 6 of the year's 10 [unprovoked] fatalities."
Though white shark incidents cover 60% of unprovoked fatalities, the ISAF stresses that there is no evidence of sharks actively hunting humans. Instead, most bites occur when sharks "mistake people for fish, seals, or other animals."
The ISAF suggests that the high number of these white shark bites are likely due to "global warming, changing fish populations and migrations, or even 'rogue' sharks." However, Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History's shark research program says the high number of deaths is likely an anomaly, and one should caution against jumping to conclusions.
So, the whole story isn't fully clear, even to shark scientists.
Naylor continues that "We expect some year-to-year variability in bite numbers and fatalities. One year does not make a trend. 2020's total bite count is extremely low, and long-term data show the number of fatal bites is decreasing over time."