This summer's horrific shark attacks may be nothing more than blind bad luck, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a statistical improbability.
At least, that's how we're expected to view such shocking encounters with nature. No one can be blamed, we're advised by "experts." If humankind is going to encroach upon nature, we have to accept the fact that we're not always going to come out on top in the food chain. It's just nature's way.
But more than mere happenstance may lie behind the sudden, shocking return of the shark. In a curious juxtaposition of trends, shark attacks last year reached record levels in the world (79), in the United States (49), and in Florida (34 documented cases) -- even as scientists and government officials are claiming that the animals are being chased toward extinction by fishermen looking for thrill kills. And shark attacks in the United States have increased dramatically since 1993 -- which is when the U.S. federal government began mandating deep cuts in the number of sharks that could be caught for sport or profit.
Proponents of such regulations are understandably reluctant to recognize the possibility of cause and effect. After all, word of the shark's imminent demise comes from no less an authority than Jaws author Peter Benchley, who has made his name alternately vilifying and lionizing the Great White. "I couldn't write Jaws today," the author and "full-time ocean conservationist" recently confessed to a magazine.
Don't hate, or fear, or lash out in anger at the poor, misunderstood shark: As an "apex predator," it plays a beneficial role in the natural world. The author of "Summer of the Shark," a recent Time magazine cover story, churned up enough menace and bloodlust to make it jump off the rack -- yet still dutifully regurgitated the sharks-as-victims line. "Humans are much more dangerous to sharks, which tend to end up in soup or medicine," the article reminded readers, before trotting out the usual statistical comparisons between shark attacks, lightning strikes, and Christmas-tree-light electrocutions.
Responding to man's alleged war on sharks -- and the toll it was said to be taking on their dominion in the deep -- the U.S. federal government in 1993 began managing the country's commercial shark fishery. It also launched an aggressive campaign to rebuild allegedly depleted shark stocks, mainly by making life untenable for commercial shark fishermen. This marked a dramatic reversal from a decade earlier, when the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), recognizing sharks as an underused resource, was actively encouraging Americans to enter an industry it now seems hell-bent on shutting down.
Since 1993, strict limits have been placed on the number of sharks that can be taken from U.S. waters by both commercial and sport fishers. The commercial shark-fishing season has been shortened accordingly. "Trip limits" of 1,800 kg made it a losing business proposition for the largest U.S. shark boats, ensuring that sharking became a small-boat industry. Commercial shark permits issued by the feds were cut tenfold, from around 2,000 before 1999 to around 200 today. And nearly 20 types of sharks -- including Whites, some types of Makos, and Caribbean Reef sharks -- have been declared off-limits to commercial harvest.
Also jumping on the shark-protection bandwagon, Florida in 1992 instituted a strict 1-shark-per-person (or 2-shark-per-boat, maximum) bag limit on sharks in state waters. Gill netting and long lining, two common techniques for snaring sharks, were also banned. Though sharks are still caught in state waters, these restrictions severely reduce the number taken closest to shore. This has effectively created a sanctuary in the area where human-animal interactions are most prone to occur, and which at least one type of shark famous for its attacks upon humans -- the Bull shark -- is known to frequent.
All of these tactics have resulted in a steep drop in the number of sharks caught in U.S. coastal waters: from 7.8 million kg in 1989, at the apogee of the shark fishing boom (spurred on, in large part, by the high prices paid for shark fin soup), to 3.8 million kg in 1999 -- or a 49% cut. Translating those weights into actual numbers, one government report indicates that shark kills fell from an estimated 350,000 fish (in 1989) to 113,100 fish (in 1999). Comparable reductions have occurred in recreational shark fishing.
In Florida, where the vast majority of shark fishing (and U.S. shark attacks) occurs, more than 3.3 million kg of shark was hooked or netted off the coast in 1990, according to U.S. fishery statistics. By 1999, due to government regulation, the total catch had plummeted by more than 86%, to just over 450,000 kg. In recent years, the NMFS has pushed for even deeper cuts, but has been blocked in court by what remains of the commercial shark fishing industry.
Sharkers question the validity of the science behind the regulations, contending that a government economic impact assessment grossly underestimated their financial hit on the industry. The government's most recent shark-stock assessment -- the product of a controversial 1998 workshop which some fishers say was hijacked by advocacy groups -- is currently undergoing an independent scientific review, as part of a court-ordered settlement between fishing interests and the government. According to fishing people, the review shows the government's shark-population estimates to be based on insufficient data and flawed modelling. According to proponents of shark rebuilding, the industry is engaged in a stalling tactic, and must be curbed for its own long-term good.
Though ichthyophiles understandably deny a correlation, the number of shark attacks in U.S. and Floridian waters has risen steadily as shark-catch totals have fallen. In 1993, when the federal government began managing the fishery, there were 8 documented shark attacks in Florida, according to the International Shark Attack File. Last year, there were a record-high 34 -- including one known fatality -- in state waters, representing a more than threefold jump in cases. Nationally, attacks rose from 21 in 1993 to 51 last year.
In the four years immediately preceding federal intervention, Florida averaged 10.7 documented shark attacks per year; the national average was 17. In the seven full years following institution of the shark-stock rebuilding program, Florida has averaged 25 shark attacks per year (a 150% increase since the early '90s) -- the nation, 35.3.
Meanwhile, word among fishermen working the waters off Florida this summer is that there is no shortage of sharks; in fact, despite government claims of scarcity, they seem to be in surplus. Some shrimp boats are reporting mounting problems with sharks tearing up nets. One fisheries management official in the Florida Keys says sharks are especially prevalent this summer. And an unusually high number of Makos have been reported in the Dry Tortugas, desert islands about 96 kilometres west of Key West. Several shark fishermen interviewed indicated that sharks are plentiful: They're having no trouble catching their 1,800 kg "trip limit" in a single night, rather than the usual two or three.
Do statistics and anecdotes indicate that federal policy may be leading to an increase in attacks? "Absolutely," says Bob Spaeth, a fish house owner from Madeira Beach, Florida, and spokesman for Southeastern Fisheries Association, Inc., an industry group. "In fact, we in the industry years ago predicted this was going to happen."
Other factors could be contributing to the phenomenon, however. These include increased human activities on the water, weather patterns and ocean currents, and shark migratory and mating activities only vaguely understood by scientists. Some experts say overfishing elsewhere in the oceans may drive sharks closer to shore. Others blame the phenomenon on shark-feeding scuba divers, and are pushing to ban these popular excursions.
All of the alternative explanations have adherents in government and in the academy -- many of them "scientists" for whom the decline of sharks, and the need to rebuild their numbers, seems to have become unshakeable dogma. George Burgess (perhaps the most widely quoted of the shark apologists, and a key player in instituting federal shark fishing regulations) believes the record number of attacks is directly attributable to increases in population and human water sports activities. But the increase in Florida shark attacks has far outpaced the state's 23.5% growth rate in the 1990s. And besides, not everyone who moves to Florida goes for the beaches and water sports.
Mr. Burgess is a leading critic of shark-feeding dives, arguing that they may somehow be altering the shark's "basic behaviour and respect for human beings." But divers account for less than 20% of shark attack victims -- a proportion that has held steady for the last 30 years. Increases have come largely at the expense of swimmers and surfers closer to shore. And in the grand scheme of things, the number of sharks likely to participate in such feedings is infinitesimally small.
Another vocal supporter of the government's shark program is Dr. Merry Camhi of the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program. Dr. Camhi served as observer at the 1998 workshop at which the most recent stock assessment was done. "I'm not out on the water and I'm not collecting the data to say myself, but based on the projected numbers from the  workshop, and based on the fact that we're still fishing under the same quotas as we were in 1997, my guess is that the shark stocks are not recovering," says Dr. Camhi. "You're never going to get perfect information" on shark-stock sizes, according to Dr. Camhi, "but you must err on the side of precaution, and err on the side of recovery."
When asked whether state regulation might have something to do with increases in attacks, Lee Shlessinger, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, was adamant in his denials. "We're in the business of rebuilding the shark population, our job is the protection of these animals," declared Mr. Shlessinger, obviously appalled by the suggestion. "Sharks are overfished. We are killing too many sharks."
What can or should be done for the protection of people if "rebuilding" current shark stocks leads to a future increase in attacks? "We have no evidence that our management of sharks has anything to do with this," Mr. Shlessinger said. "But if our commission sees this as a problem, we'll just have to deal with it then. Right now, we're looking at it in terms of the shark."
One staunch proponent of shark decline who nonetheless seems willing to consider a link with increasing attacks is Dr. Ellen Pikitch, director of marine conservation programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Though she stands behind the 1998 assessment that shark stocks remain in deficit, and calls the chance that they could be in surplus "minuscule," Ms. Pikitch at least seemed intrigued with the data to the contrary. "I think people should probably take a closer look at shark species most responsible for attacks," Ms. Pikitch said. "It could be that, with certain species, they could be rebounding near shore. It's certainly something people should look at."
And what of the likelihood that federal shark-stock rebuilding efforts will lead to a further increase in shark encounters? "I think shark attacks are unpleasant and not something we want to see increasing, but the first step is to understand what is happening," she said. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions, but we shouldn't behave like ostriches either."
A more proactive approach to the shark question is suggested by fish house owner Bob Spaeth, who urges wider national adoption of what he calls the shark fisher's unofficial motto. And that is?
"Eat the shark before the shark eats you," chuckles Mr. Spaeth.
Sean Paige is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Copyright © 2001 The National Post