By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
Ah . . . summer at the beach.
Hot sun, sea breezes, kids splashing in the surf. It's that time again: time to pack up the sunscreen, cooler and flip-flops, and -- with millions of others -- head for the sand and sparkling water.
The SUMMER OF THE SHARK?
It was, sort of.
A series of horrific attacks took place in U.S. waters last year, and they came during a prolonged news lull that didn't end until Sept. 11. For much of the summer, sharks were trapped in the national media spotlight.
"It got so that with every small nip on a surfer's toe, the media helicopters would be roaming up and down the beaches, looking for sharks," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. The prevailing feeling, he said, "was that we were having some kind of banner year, or worse, we were under siege."
Biologists and fisheries officials say the "Summer of the Shark" moniker was nonsense. Sharks are an important part of a delicate ecosystem, they say, and a vastly overstated risk to humans. The number of unprovoked and fatal attacks on humans worldwide last year was actually down from the year before. The Shark Attack File recorded 76 unprovoked attacks worldwide in 2001, compared with 85 in 2000. The number of people killed in shark attacks also dropped to five from 12 the previous year.
So this year the experts have planned a pre-emptive strike. "We have to correct some misconceptions that jumped out last year," Burgess said.
In an effort to "get the facts out," Burgess will join federal fisheries officials and other biologists at a media briefing at the National Press Club in Washington next month. The goal will be to assure people that there is little to worry about as they pack for a day at the beach -- as long as some common sense rules are followed. "Last year the rate of attacks on humans was about the same as the year before," Burgess said, "but we had 800 percent more media coverage. From July 4 to Sept. 11, I did 950 press interviews. Then, with the terrorist attacks, the story just died."
In fact, the experts will say, it is the shark that is in trouble. Some populations are under heavy pressure from recreational and commercial fishermen.
In general, sharks are easy to catch. And because they mature slowly, their recovery from overfishing -- if there is to be one -- will take decades rather than years, Burgess said.
"The real story is that through overfishing, man bites shark," said Burgess. "That's the real news."
"Last summer, for the first time in 25 years, I began to hear people say, why do we need them? There are too many and maybe we should just kill them . . . like mosquitoes," said Robert E. Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. "I haven't heard that since Jaws came out."
For a while last summer, however, it was hard to see the shark as a victim.
Media coverage began to build with the July attack on 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast, a few feet from shore in the waters off Pensacola. The shark bit off Jesse's right arm and a large part of one of his legs. The arm was retrieved and re-attached, but blood loss left the boy brain-damaged.
Weeks later, a 10-year-old boy was fatally mauled in the Virginia Beach, Va., surf. Two days after that a shark killed a man and gravely injured his girlfriend off a North Carolina beach.
And in the Tampa Bay area, people remember that a bull shark killed St. Pete Beach resident Thadeus Kubinski two years ago as he swam near a dock behind his home on Boca Ciega Bay.
No one disputes that sharks occupy our nightmares for good reason.
They are fast, powerful flesh eaters, and some big ones are particularly ill-tempered. People who venture into the water, even the shallow water near shore, must remember that in that environment, the shark is the "apex predator."
And despite an overall population decline, at least one potentially troublesome question remains: Might some kinds of sharks be thriving as others decline?
A lingering question about the bull
The bull shark is a large, pugnacious animal common to Florida bays and shoreline in the summer. According to Hueter, who heads the Mote Marine Laboratory shark research programs, it is "the most dangerous animal in the coastal waters of the Southeast."
The bull shark has a huge mouth filled with sharp teeth, and more testosterone per unit of blood than any other animal on Earth, Hueter said.
The troubling possibility that the bull shark population may be increasing due to the decline of other types of sharks "is an idea in the backs of our minds," he said. Hueter raised this possibility last summer after he and other researchers found numerous bulls while looking for another kind of shark.
He said he began to wonder what was going on. Why did there suddenly seem to be more bull sharks in coastal waters? "I began to worry about what might be looming for the rest of the summer," he said last summer. "I had an uncomfortable feeling that something was going to happen."
A few days later, Jessie Arbogast, standing with his uncle in thigh-deep water off the coast of Pensacola, was the victim of a furious, nearly fatal attack by a bull shark. And in the weeks that followed there were more attacks, with bull sharks the most likely suspects.
Hueter said he has a hunch. The population of bull sharks may have increased in recent years, he said, as the population of rival sharks -- competitors for food and habitat -- decreased.
In the mid 1980s, he said, a growing middle class in China became a market for the fins and flesh of the blacktip and sandbar sharks. It's possible that the culling of these less aggressive species of shark worked to the population advantage of the bull, he said.
Burgess, UF's keeper of the International Shark Attack File, isn't convinced.
"We have good data," he said, gathered by monitoring fishermen's catches from North Carolina through the eastern Gulf of Mexico. "In the last nine years we do not see an increase in the bull shark catch," he said.
Recently the Mote Marine Laboratory and three other organizations got $1.4-million from the U.S. government to investigate.
In May, said Hueter, researchers will sail along the Southwest Florida coastline, attempting to quantify the number of bull, hammerhead and blacktip sharks and better understand how they fit into the coastal marine ecosystem.
"We hope to build on this work, and make it a long-term project," Hueter said.
Whatever is finally learned about the bull shark, the coastal shark population was decimated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hueter said, in part by long-line commercial fishing. (In long-line fishing, hundreds of baited hooks are attached to a single line).
The growth of a suddenly lucrative commercial shark fishery was not necessarily a bad thing, Hueter noted, "but the intensity, the speed it bloomed, was bad."
By the early 1990s, some parts of the shark fishery were severely depleted, Hueter said, and both state and federal regulations were put in place.
"But rebuilding takes a long time. We don't need to rebuild a virgin shark population, but we do need to rebuild a sustainable population. They are an important part of the ecosystem."
How to reduce your chance of a shark encounter
The particularly dangerous bull shark is common in the warm, protected waters of Tampa Bay from May through September. Then they generally move south to Florida Bay and the Florida Keys until they return the following spring. They are also found offshore.
Robert E. Hueter, a biologist with Mote Marine Laboratory, suggests this rule-of-thumb:
"From 5 through 9 (the fifth month through the ninth) swim only from 9 to 5 (a.m. to p.m.)."
The International Shark Attack File offers these tips to reduce your chance of encountering a shark:
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