"I think people are beginning to get a little more intelligent about when and where they enter the water," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File housed at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History. "There seems to be more of an understanding that when we enter the sea, it's a wilderness experience, and we're intruders in that environment."
Last year's total of 55 unprovoked attacks worldwide dropped nearly 13 percent from the 63 reported in 2002, and was down considerably from the 68 in 2001 and the all-time record of 79 in 2000, said Burgess, who oversees the file, the world's largest database of shark attacks.
More important, he said, the overall fatality rate continues to be lower than in the past, making up only 7 percent of the attacks that occurred in 2003, in contrast to an annual average of 13 percent during the 1990s.
Last year there were four deaths from shark attacks compared with three in 2002, four in 2001 and 11 in 2000. They occurred in the United States, Australia, South Africa and Fiji.
The most highly publicized attack involved Deborah Franzman, a 50-year-old woman who was mauled to death by a great white shark on Aug. 19 while swimming alongside a group of seals off the California coast, Burgess said. Another high-profile incident that didn't end in fatality was a Halloween attack off Kauai's North Shore on 13-year-old surfing champion Bethany Hamilton, whose left arm was severed below the shoulder during practice.
Normally, scientists don't put much stock in year-to-year fluctuations in the number of attacks. Such variations could be caused by a variety of changes in meteorological and oceanographic conditions, such as an upswing in numbers of bait fish swimming close to shore, or by changes in people's use patterns, Burgess said.
But the three-year decline in attacks may be the result of factors that indicate a longer-term trend, such as the possibility there are fewer sharks and people together in the water where they could meet, Burgess said. "The first explanation that comes to mind is that there are simply fewer sharks out there in the water," he said. "We know that shark populations have declined internationally because of overfishing."
The overall downturn in the economy over the past several years may be another factor, resulting in fewer people being able to afford to travel to the ocean than in 2000, when there were so many more attacks, Burgess said.
"The number of shark attacks in any given year is directly related to the amount of time humans spend in the sea as well as the number of sharks living there," he said.
Burgess added the caution people may be exercising at the beach could be related to the growing restraint in the public's outcry for widespread fishing to kill sharks after attacks have occurred. "There has been a gradual learning curve among ocean users," he said. "We now understand that shark-human interactions, while very rare and occasionally serious, are part of the price we pay for venturing into a foreign environment."
As in recent years, the bulk of the 2003 attacks were in North American waters. The 41 attacks in U.S. territorial waters were fewer than the 47 reported in 2002, 50 in 2001 and 54 in 2000. Elsewhere, there were six attacks in Australia, two each in Brazil and South Africa; and one each in Fiji, India, Madagascar and Venezuela.
Florida continued to be the world's shark attack capital with 31 reports, somewhat lower than the 2000-02 average of about 33, based on 29 in 2002, 34 in 2001 and 37 in 2000.
The highest number of attacks in Florida - 14 - occurred on the central East Coast in Volusia County, where an inlet near New Smyrna Beach is a popular surfing site, Burgess said. Other Florida counties having attacks in 2003 were Brevard - 8, St. Johns - 3, Martin and Palm Beach - 2 each, and Miami-Dade and St. Lucie - 1 each.
Outside Florida, attacks were recorded in Hawaii - 4, South Carolina - 3, and one each in California, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Johnson Atoll, a small island south of Hawaii.
Surfers were the most frequent victims, involved in 29 incidents, followed by swimmers and waders - 20, and divers and snorkelers - 3.