Tourists visiting from landlocked locales often want to know just one thing before dipping their toes into our Caribbean waters: “But what about sharks?” they coo as they contemplate whether the refreshing turquoise water is worth taking the risk of getting their arm eaten off by a terrifying prehistoric monster hungry for human flesh. Which isn’t a very a realistic fear, according to David Shiffman, the marine biologist and shark feeding ecologist whose Twitter account @WhySharksMatter keeps its nearly 25,000 followers abreast of his research in shark conservation. “More people are bitten by other people in New York City than are bitten by sharks in the whole world in a typical year,” said Shiffman. “It’s a very rare event for a shark to bite a person, and for a bite to lead to serious injuries, rarer still.”
There’s plenty of evidence to back his statement up. A visit to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File reveals there were only 72 unprovoked shark attacks in the entire world in 2014, down from 75 the previous year. Not surprisingly, a little less than 40% of those attacks occurred in Florida, with 28 shark attacks reported last year. But before you vow never to take a swim in Miami again, you should consider the odds.
“Hundreds of millions of people go into the water everyday, and that’s especially true in Florida,”Shiffman said. “There are so many people in the water that the individual risk is down. If sharks were more of a significant threat to people, than people would be bit.” That’s no less true when you consider how many species of sharks are swimming in Florida’s waters completely undetected by the average swimmer — whether you know it or not, they’re swimming into our beaches in droves.
“I have yet to go to the beach and not see a shark. Sharks are always there,” Shiffman said. “They swim in our beaches and some come almost out of the water and onto the shore because they’re looking for food. And yet, it’s unbelievably rare that you would get bitten by a shark.”
Shiffman’s research covers bull sharks, tiger sharks, hammerhead sharks, and great white sharks regularly seen swimming around Miami, so he should know. When it comes to sharks, humans just aren’t on the regular menu. Florida sharks tend to dine on fish, invertebrates like crab or spiny lobsters, smaller sharks, and sting rays, while sharks in cooler waters tend to go for plump and juicy seals. “Humans are all bone, and sharks like to eat fatty red muscle. Eating us would take just too much energy to digest,” David said.
So why do sharks bite? Shiffman says it’s usually a case of mistaken identity. “Sharks aren’t used to things being in their environment that isn’t food. When a surfer cuts through the water on his board, wearing a white suit, he can easily be mistaken for a seal,” he says. But most of the time, once a shark gets a taste of his bony human dinner, he backs off in disgust. “The ‘hit and run’ is a common bite — they take one bite and realize it’s not what they wanted to eat,” Shiffman said.
Shiffman focuses his research on trying to understand the feeding patterns of sharks, in an effort to promote shark conservation and lessen the threat of extinction due to overfishing. Ironically enough, eating shark is far more appealing to humans that eating humans is to sharks.
“One of the major drivers of overfishing internationally are shark fins, which are consumed as a delicacy in China,” Shiffman said. “Shark fin used to be consumed by the emperor in court, and now millions of Chinese that are newly wealthy are making it a new tradition of their culture.”
Another major factor driving overfishing is that people don’t care about saving sharks, mainly because they’ve been convinced that they’re vicious, monstrous creatures out for human blood. So maybe it’s time to put your fears aside. “The American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s largest professional association of shark and ray scientists, issued a statement calling on media to stop using the term shark attack because its so inflammatory,” Shiffman said. “It conjures images that seriously influence shark preservation, and sharks are important to biodiversity. Shark overfishing significantly affects social ecosystems.”