Shark Attack Risk Down Sharply, Despite Recent Incidents

Great white sharks look fearsome, but the risk of being attacked by one has gone down dramatically since the 1950s. stringer / REUTERS

Despite a rash of shark attacks in the East Coast in recent weeks, especially in North Carolina and Florida, the truth is that they are still extremely rare. Even scuba divers have only a 1-in-136,000,000 chance of being bitten, and beachgoers are 1,800 times more likely to die from drowning than from a shark bite, according to a study to be published later in July in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Shark attacks are actually becoming less and less common as the years pass. The study found that since 1950, the chance of being attacked by a great white has declined by 91 percent in California. The risk of being bitten by any shark is down 78 percent. The study authors note that from 1950 to 2013, there have been only 86 "injurious" attacks off the coast of the state, 13 which were fatal.

In raw numbers, shark bite incidences have actually gone up slightly over the years, from 0.9 per year in the 1950s to 1.5 per year in the last decade. But this rise has been eclipsed by the much greater increase in the quantity of people living by and swimming in the ocean nationwide, not just in California. So although there are slightly more attacks now than there used to be, the chance of any one person being bitten are much, much lower.

Although the study focused on California, the results "seem consistent with what I have seen in terms of shark attacks on a worldwide basis," George Burgess, the director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told National Geographic.

This decline in shark attack risk can be credited in part to the decline in population of the animals. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year, and numbers of Pacific great white sharks were greatly reduced in the latter half of the 20th century (though great whites do seem to be recovering now, according to a 2014 census). Another reason for the drop in rate of attacks is the availability of information on where sharks are most likely to come into contact with people. For example, we now know to avoid waters around populations of seals. We also know there is a higher risk of attacks from sharks in general at night, and from great whites in the fall, when the animals migrate back to Northern California, according to the study.