Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Shark attack numbers fell in 2016

The number of unprovoked shark attacks across the world fell last year, in the wake of a record figure in 2015 that scientists partly put down to warmer waters created by a strong El Nino system.

But while global population growth is putting more people in contact with sharks and driving a slow but upward trend, Kiwis remain extremely more likely to be injured dancing or riding a luge than ever being bitten.

The University of Florida's International Shark Attack File (ISAF) reported 81 unprovoked attacks worldwide, in line with the five-year average of about 82 incidents annually and down from 98 the year before.

Four of the 2016 attacks were fatal, including two of 15 attacks in Australia, and another two in New Caledonia.

While the 2016 file made no reference to a New Zealand incident, Department of Conservation marine scientist Clinton Duffy was aware of just one incident last year, involving a great white shark in Northland.

The database, which tracks shark attacks globally, defined unprovoked shark attacks as those initiated by a shark in its natural habitat.

ISAF curator George Burgess said that many of these incidents might be more accurately called "human-shark interactions," as not all attacks caused injury and could include a rough bump from a shark or a bite on a surfboard.

Fifty-eight per cent of the attacks worldwide involved board sports.

Although shark attacks have gradually increased, the number of fatal attacks has consistently fallen over the past century, something that's been attributed to improved safety practices on beaches, better medical treatment and growing public awareness of how to avoid potentially dangerous situations.

Burgess added the chances of being injured or killed by a shark were "infinitesimal".

While the ISAF recorded 50 New Zealand shark attacks since 1852, Duffy estimated the figure to be 113, although the accuracy of information collected before the 1960s was "sketchy".

Around a dozen of them are known to have been fatal, the most recent of which occurred at Muriwai Beach in February 2013.

Duffy said there appeared to have been an increase in attacks in Australia since the late 1990s, but there was no indication of a similar pattern in New Zealand, with an average two incidents each year over the period.

"We are a marine-oriented people, so a lot of us enjoy water-based recreational activities like diving, kayaking and surfing and these do bring us into contact with sharks every now and then . . . but we are spread pretty thinly over the available habitat."

Statistically, the rate of shark encounters paled in comparison to the number of Kiwis injured each year by seemingly harmless activities like dancing - there were 8125 related ACC claims in 2014 - and luge riding (373 claims).

Duffy also pointed out the deadliest activity Kiwis took part in wasn't paddling near sharks, but driving. New Zealand's handful of fatal shark attacks compared with around 38,000 people killed on roads in 96 years of records.

"It's the most dangerous thing that any of us do, but we never think about it."

A bigger concern was the welfare of sharks themselves: great white sharks, the species forever demonised by Steven Spielberg's Jaws, was now considered "vulnerable" globally.

- NZ Herald

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