The Rise of the Great White Shark: ‘Sharknado’ IRL?

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It might sound like something tailor-made for a summer blockbuster, but researchers are now saying that great white sharks are no longer endangered. This is great news, but experts are also predicting a rise in the number of shark attacks this summer. Bet you’re hearing the “Jaws” music. Da nuh, daaaah nuh, dun-dun dun-dun da-dun.

Two recent research studies published in PLOS One are claiming growing numbers of great whites. One study conducted by George H. Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, was published June 16. Burgess explains the good news, “If something is wrong with the largest, most powerful group in the sea, then something is wrong with the sea, so it’s a relief to find they’re in good shape.”

Burgess gives two explanations for the increase. He attributes the improved numbers to U.S. regulatory agencies and their conservation measures. Another reason is that great whites have been very difficult to track accurately and previous studies might have underestimated the numbers.

The other recently published study in PLOS One is by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This June 11 article states that the scientific team’s research analyses offer a much more optimistic outlook for the great white sharks that they studied in the western North Atlantic Ocean. The study shows that the population of great white sharks there declined by 73 percent from early 1960s to 1980s. Now, shark abundance is down only 31 percent from its historical high estimate in 1961.

Tobey H. Curtis, an author on the NOAA study said, “There’s this general pattern of where the white sharks are protected, they seem to recover.” The elusive nature of white sharks and the lack of historical data about their population levels required the authors to rely on sightings of sharks, Curtis said. Some scientists estimate the number of great white sharks now as between 3,000 and 5,000. Obviously, the wide range is a result of the difficulty to track them accurately.

Camilla T. McCandless, another author on the study, credits conservationists’ efforts by saying that the increase “tells us the management tools appear to be working.”

The NOAA report also illuminates where people encounter white sharks — mostly between Massachusetts and New Jersey during the summer and off Florida in the winter. They also migrate based on water temperature and availability of prey, and are more common along the coast than offshore.

Predicted rise in shark attacks

Burgess said the predicted rise in shark attacks this summer compared to last is due to a few things. “Each year, more people are going into the water,” he said. He also noted, “We’re seeing a rise in numbers of sharks on both coasts.”

Tips to avoid a shark attack:

“Stay in groups because sharks look for solitary prey,” Burgess said. “Also, stay out of the water between dusk and dawn, when sharks are most active. Go for a sunset walk on the beach; not a swim.” He also advised staying away from waters around sandbars, river mouths and lagoons because the fish that are drawn to these areas attract sharks.

Another tip is to avoid wearing shiny jewelry while you’re at the beach. Burgess explained that metal and certain other types of jewelry can reflect up to 99 percent of the light that hits it. To a shark, the shimmery reflected light can look like fish scales. Yum, yum. Gulp.

Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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