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Sharing the Water with Sharks: Awareness and Education are Key

Every year, millions of tourists and residents visit Florida's beaches and waterways, and these beaches and waterways will more than likely contain sharks. According to experts, while there are no guaranteed ways to avoid shark bites, understanding shark behavior could help you make better decisions on when and where to swim.

"It's very important for people who visit Florida waters to be aware of their surroundings, understand the relative risks, and be educated on various shark issues such as behavior, biology and fisheries," says Brent Winner, scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI).

In the over 400 million years that sharks and their ancestors have roamed Florida waters, their role in their environment has changed very little. As the top predator in most marine ecosystems, sharks continue to help maintain balance within each ecosystem they inhabit.

Florida's diverse shark population includes species that range in size from only a few feet to more than 40 feet in total length. Most of these species feed on fishes or marine invertebrates. Some even feed on plankton, but none see humans as a food source. Experts believe that most shark bites are cases of mistaken identity, which explains why nearly all shark bites that occur in Florida waters are of a bite-and-release nature. The percentage of fatal shark bites has dramatically decreased worldwide: in Florida, shark bites are fatal less than 1% of the time, far less than the current worldwide average (~10%).

Many shark species are common in Florida's nearshore waters and bays. More than 13 species of shark use these areas as nursery grounds for their pups. Scientific data show that many shark species migrate in and out of Florida's waters each year. These migrations are often linked to temperature and the presence of prey such as mullet, sardines, menhaden, and other species of baitfish. Migrating sharks will either move in an inshore-offshore manner or along latitudinal gradients (e.g., north-south).

In Florida, sharks typically move inshore and north in the spring and summer, and offshore and south in fall and winter months. This pattern explains why shark activity is at its peak in Florida waters during April through October, which coincidentally, is also the time period that humans are more likely to be in the water. Yet shark bites still remain very rare. Humans are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning in Florida than to be bitten by a shark. Experts agree that the increase in the number of shark bites in recent years is more related to an increase in human visitors than to an increase in shark populations or activity.

Humans are much more of a danger to sharks than vice versa. On average worldwide, fewer than 10 people die from shark bites each year; however, the world's fisheries kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually. The general biology and life history of most shark species make them extremely vulnerable to overfishing, which is why federal and state regulations protect these valuable resources. Some data show that shark populations are at 20%-30% of the level they were just 25 years ago. To ensure our own safety and the continued existence of these fascinating fishes, people need to become more aware of sharks and more educated about sharks and related issues.