Sharks attacked people 98 times in 2015, a spike in unprovoked attacks that set a new record as human populations rise, researchers found in an annual global tally released on Monday.
Six people were killed by sharks, including a snorkeler in Hawaii. Two deaths were recorded off the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, and shark attack victims also died in Australia, Egypt and New Caledonia, according to data submitted by scientists worldwide.
While last year saw twice as many fatal attacks as 2014, the number of deadly encounters was roughly on par with the past decade’s average, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File. Maintained at the University of Florida, the database was established in 1958.
The International Shark Attack File said it had investigated 164 incidents worldwide in 2015, and found 98 to be cases of unprovoked shark attacks on humans.
It defines unprovoked attacks as “incidents where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark”.
The 98 unprovoked attacks surpassed by 10 the previous high recorded in 2000, Burgess said.
Shark attacks are occurring further north in the United States as warmer ocean temperatures extend the marine animal’s range, Burgess noted. In a rare incident, a New Yorker was attacked while boogie boarding off Long Island, he said.
“We’re going to be seeing more bites north of Virginia in the east and California in the west in the years ahead as long as this warming trend continues,” Burgess said.
Unseasonable warm water off the coasts of North and South Carolina likely contributed to 16 attacks there last year, including rare attacks in which two children were bitten in separate incidents less than an hour apart, he said.
Florida saw 30 shark attacks in 2015, roughly half of the 59 recorded in the United States, as is typical, Burgess said.
Hawaii saw seven attacks, and the rest occurred in California, Texas, Mississippi and New York. After the United States, Australia and South Africa recorded the next highest number of attacks, at 18 and 8 respectively.
Australia’s total was its highest total since 2009, and saw 12 attacks in New South Wales (where the sole unprovoked fatality took place), two in Western Australia, two in Queensland, and single incidents in South Australia and Victoria.
An incident in which a man was killed by a shark while diving with his daughter off Tasmania’s Maria Island was recorded as “provoked”, defined as “when a human attracts or initiates physical contact with a shark, e.g. a person is bitten after grabbing a shark, a fisherman bitten while removing a shark from a hook, interactions with spear fishermen while spearing fish or the shark, a person steps on a shark, etc”.
Eight attacks in South Africa fell significantly below its record high of 17 in 1998, and no fatalities were recorded in 2015.
The researchers highlighted attacks in Réunion – which has experienced seven deaths in five years – as “worrisome”, saying the record “suggests that appropriate management of that situation is still wanting”.
The increasing amount of time humans spend in the sea is a factor in the number of incidents, the researchers noted: “As world population continues its upsurge and interest in aquatic recreation concurrently rises, we realistically should expect increases in the number of shark attacks and other aquatic recreation-related injuries …
“Shark populations are actually declining or holding at greatly reduced levels in many areas of the world as a result of over-fishing and habitat loss, theoretically reducing the opportunity for these shark-human interactions.
“However, year-to-year variability in local meteorological, oceanographic, and socioeconomic conditions also significantly influences the local abundance of sharks and humans in the water and, therefore, the odds of encountering one another.”
Reuters contributed to this report.