The federal government recently sponsored a press conference on shark attacks, and while it was meant to be reassuring, it actually showed Americans have good reason to be afraid as another summer beach season approaches.
Not only should they be on guard against shark encounters, but they may have even more to fear from another menace: federal and state regulators who seem determined to pursue shark-protection programs that may actually make shark attacks more likely.
At the session at the National Press Club in Washington (bill to the taxpayers: $23,000), carefully selected presenters not only dismissed last year's "Summer of the Shark" as nothing more than a "media feeding frenzy," but tried to paper over any possibility that government regulatory actions had anything to do with it.
That's because public fears of shark attacks make the government worried as well. The danger is that the public fear will prompt hard questions about whether state and federal agencies have been regulating recklessly, pursuing shark protection measures with little apparent concern for their public safety consequences.
Most Americans were probably not aware of it when the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service launched an effort in 1993 to increase populations of large coastal sharks by sharply reducing the catch quotas of commercial shark fishers in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
As the shark-catch quotas were cut, and more sharks were left in the water each year, attacks along the eastern seaboard and in Florida began to jump upward. Saving supposedly endangered sharks and responding to pressure from wildlife advocacy groups were the government's main concern. What might occur along the beaches when those shark populations rebounded (assuming they were seriously depleted in the first place) never seems to have crossed anyone's mind.
Attacks in Florida, where the vast majority of U.S. attacks occur, averaged about 10 a year in the four years leading up to the program, and even less during the 1980s. Since the program's inception, the attacks have more than doubled on average, culminating in a record year in 2000 (with 38) and a near-record total (37) last year.
There were 55 unprovoked attacks off all U.S. shores last year, topping the year 2000 record of 54. In the early 1990s, before federal intervention on behalf of sharks, annual attack numbers averaged about half that many.
The attacks resulted in three fatalities last year -- more than in the entire decade of the 1990s. Those fatalities and some of the worst maulings last year occurred in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, where the federal shark protection program is in effect. The state of Florida has something to answer for, too. In 1992, it banned commercial shark fishing and curtailed recreational shark fishing in state waters (extending three miles into the Atlantic, nine miles into the Gulf of Mexico). That action effectively established shark sanctuaries in waters closest to shore -- favorite cruising grounds for the dangerous bull shark, implicated in last summer's most savage attacks, and areas in which human-shark encounters are most likely to occur.
In 1995 the state also instituted a gill-net ban that undoubtedly has led to a huge increase in the amount of baitfish in near-shore waters. Protected sharks chasing exploding baitfish populations -- neither of which are being culled out by commercial and recreational fisherman as they were in the past -- may be contributing to the increase in attacks in Florida during the 1990s. These aren't the only possible explanations for why shark attacks have been on the rise. Yet the potentially dangerous effects of shark-protection regulations have been roundly ignored by the government and its pet scientists because they pose a threat to state and federal shark protection efforts, the agencies implementing them and the environmental advocacy groups pushing them. (Several of these groups are currently suing to force even deeper cuts in commercial shark catching quotas in the Atlantic.)
Experts at the government's press conference argued that there was nothing abnormal about last year's "Summer of the Shark" because, statistically speaking, it was little different than the year before. That message was swallowed whole by the attending media and carried off on the news wires, to be presented as fact. What was ignored was that the year before last was a record year for attacks, with totals much higher than anything experienced before the mid-1990s. And that is only one of many selective and self-serving statistics served up for public consumption that day.
If government is going to engage in predator-protection initiatives, it has a responsibility to be frank about the public safety implications of its actions and to take reasonable steps to minimize the tragedies that may result.