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July 30, 2013

Yes, they're down there, but shark attacks are quite uncommon

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Florida's Brevard and Volusia counties, including tourist hot spots such as New Smyrna Beach, routinely lead the nation in the annual number of shark strikes because they have a a huge number of surfers and swimmers and are in the migration routes of blacktip and sandbar sharks. Together they made up 15 of the 53 recorded U.S. attacks last year, though most of these tend to be minor scrapes since the species there are less dangerous than those found in other areas.

Common-sense precautions — avoiding areas where seals congregate, staying close to shore and staying out of the water around dawn and dusk, when sharks tend to be feeding and water visibility is low — are the best ways to avoid coming into a contact with a shark, experts say.

The shark species that pose the greatest risks to humans are great white, tiger, bull and oceanic whitetip sharks. So the regions of the world where some of these sharks swim — including Australia, South Africa and California, where great whites regularly migrate — tend to have more fatalities. Of the seven fatalities last year, according to the International Shark Attack File, three were off South Africa, two of Australia, one off California and one off the French island of Runion in the Indian Ocean. Despite its small size, Runion has emerged as one of the world's deadliest shark sites: a 15-year-old was killed July 15 off a beach where swimming was prohibited, the second Runion death this year and the fifth since 2011.

Scientists do not know why this number is so high, but George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, said he suspects human factors are playing a role. Island residents have cut back on shark fishing because of concerns over the toxins in shark meat; Burgess said an increase in global tourism means more people who are not familiar with the island are visiting and swimming there. "Now you've got a great rush of people in the water who don't know the area, and don't know the risks." he said.

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