Great white shark sightings up on East and West Coasts: What are they after? (+video)
Great white sharks are moving closer to shore looking for seals, not people, researchers say. What may look like an 'attack' on YouTube may be something else. Still, use caution.
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In Pictures Sharks rule
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A full 37 years after this movie-ad line helped make “Jaws” the biggest cinematic hit of its time, it still makes beachgoers pause. Along with the pulsing music and images of a fin slicing the ocean surface – from kid pranksters or a real shark – the line is once again being trotted out by officials on both the East and West Coasts at the height of beachgoing season because of real-life shark visitations.
An 18-foot great white shark buzzsawed through the front end of a kayak about 400 yards from Pleasure Point off Santa Cruz July 7. And the town of Chatham, a Cape Cod resort, has barred swimming within 300 feet of seals, known to be a key delectation for hungry sharks. The Cape Cod Shark Hunters, which conducts research with scientists from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, reported two shark sightings July 3, and three other great whites the week before.
The danger, however, is very slight, say a host of researchers, who are using the incidents to remind the public of its fascination with the ocean predator – and to shift the spotlight to mankind’s global abuse of the species.
“The public loves to fear the idea of sharks and so the media play it up big time because they know it sells newspapers and can be used by broadcasters to tease news features endlessly,” says George Burgess, head ichthyologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, who has studied sharks for over 30 years. The facts are that sharks almost never attack humans. From 1953 to 2011 there were only 103 verified great white shark attacks in California, with 12 fatalities. Worldwide, last year, there were only five fatalities, says Mr. Burgess, who publishes statistics about sharks.
But Burgess and others say that the opportunity is perfect to harness the attention to man’s treatment of sharks, which is to kill 40 million to 70 million annually. A huge percentage of that is unintentional, as sharks are caught in the nets of tuna and swordfish operations. But a significant portion is also the result of huge demand – especially in Asian countries – for the health food supplements made from shark oil and fins. Using his calculator, Burgess quickly comes up with the ratio of 14 million to 1 – sharks killed by man vs. men killed by sharks.
His conclusion: “We don’t want to sound callous at all to those who have died, because our hearts do very much go out to the families of victims – but statistically, sharks are a nonproblem, especially if you consider their hundreds of millions of hours in the sea.”