A look at human/shark encounters on National Shark Awareness Day

Posted at 6:48 PM, Jul 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-14 18:48:39-04

Thursday is National Shark Awareness Day, which might have special meaning in Florida - the number one ranking place in the world for shark attacks.

2015 saw a record number of shark attacks: 98 worldwide, with 6 of them being fatal. But George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, says that the sharks are the ones who are in trouble.

"Shark populations are on the decline, and have been for the last few decades," Burgess said. "Chiefly as the result of over-fishing, but also because of loss of habitat and pollution effects."

There were 59 shark attacks reported in the U.S. in 2015. Of those, 30 happened in Florida. Leah Biery, director of communications for the Sanibel Sea School, says that factors for the increase could be that more and more people are heading to Florida beaches, combined with increased fishing in the state's waters.

"That reduces the amount of fish that sharks have to eat, and means they have to maybe come further inshore to look for fish," Biery said.

She said that it's in swimmers' best interest to be careful, like not swimming at dawn or dusk, when sharks are more likely to feed close to shore. But if you do see one, it's best not to panic.

"If a shark swims by you, I think you should feel lucky," Biery said. "I think it's pretty cool to see a shark in the wild."

Burgess added that considering the stresses on their environment, encounters between sharks and humans are fairly rare.

"The outcome is generally not as bad as one might believe from watching movies and TV," Burgess said.