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February 13, 2008

Swift-Boating the Sharks

Posted: 12:47 PM ET

There’s a sad irony in the news today, following this week’s death of Roy Scheider, the shark-hunting cop from the Jaws movies.  The International Shark Attack File, the unofficial scorekeeper on worldwide shark attacks on humans, published its death toll for the year 2007.

ALT TEXT

All of the sharks in all the world’s oceans barely kept pace with Mr. Scheider’s movie accomplishments.  They killed one of us last year.  One.

Certainly that one death is no laughing matter.  She was a vacationing nurse, snorkeling in the waters off New Caledonia in the South Pacific.  There were also 71 reported shark attacks that did not result in a human death last year.

George Burgess, the University of Florida researcher who runs ISAF, performs the grim task of counting up the incidents.  But he does so with his own sense of irony.  Popular culture, he says – from the big screen to magazine cover stories to cable news channels (!) – have pumped up the drama of shark attacks, in the process creating the impression that they’re far more common than they truly are.

Burgess’s numbers, as well as a few pulled from other studies, put the shark frenzy in context:

- From 2000 to 2005, ISAF reports there were eight domestic shark attack deaths.  The International Hunter Education Association reports that 385 U.S. and Canadian hunters were accidentally killed by other hunters in that same time frame.

- The New England Journal of Medicine reported that from 1990 to 2006, there were 16 deaths on American beaches caused by digging sandholes till the sand collapsed, smothering the digger.  ISAF counted a dozen U.S. shark deaths in the same period.  Clearly, you’d be safer in the water, with the sharks, than you are in your own sandhole.

- Florida is the most prolific state for both boating and shark attacks.  Over a two-decade period, the U.S. Coast Guard reported 764 boating-accident deaths in the state.  The sharks took four lives in the same years.

- A decade ago, a Consumer Product Safety Commission report tracked vending machine deaths from 1977 till 1995, thirty seven Americans were killed when they got overly aggressive, toppling a vending machine to get a reluctant quarter or cola – an average of about two per year, or twice the number killed by sharks in the US.  Just when you thought it was safe to get a Dr. Pepper ...

n      Deer – the very symbol of the terrors of nature – take between 130 and 140 human lives each year – usually just after they’re in your headlights.  The CDC estimates an average of fifteen U.S. deaths per year from snakebites.  But the all-time champion animal nemesis for the human race doesn’t have a scorekeeper, and will likely never get its own series of movies or saturation news coverage.  We don’t know for certain how many people are killed by mosquito-borne disease but the horrible toll easily reaches the millions each year. 

Roy Scheider’s immortal line from the first Jaws movie was, upon first seeing his Great White enemy, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  But in the world’s eye, the sharks are getting Swift-Boated.  And we’re not working very hard to find the Real Killers.

- Peter Dykstra,  executive producer, Sci-Tech

Filed under: Animal attacks • Sharks


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