Sharks have become an iconic species in our society, conjuring up emotions ranging from fear and terror to excitement and awe. The infamous Jaws music or the sight of a dark dorsal fin powerfully cutting through the surface of the water are indicative of the perceived threat these animals possess to humans. And the immense popularity of the annual Shark Week on Discovery Channel says much of our fascination with these creatures of the deep.

There are over 400 species of sharks inhabiting oceans worldwide, ranging in size from a mere eight inches to a whopping 40 feet in length! Some actively hunt and kill a variety of animals including seals, fish, and whales, while others are merely filter-feeders that dine on plankton. Some sharks have flattened bodies for hiding in sand, while others patrol the deepest, coldest depths of the ocean. Colorful markings characterize some species, while others have distinguishable head shapes mimicking hammers or saws.

It’s safe to say that sharks come in all shapes, sizes and colors and occupy their own unique place in their respective ecosystems.

Shark Attack Numbers Are Up, But Sharks Aren’t to Blame!Ryan Espanto/Flickr

A recorded history of shark attacks has fueled fear in the hearts of man toward these creatures for years. Between 1580 and 2014, there have been a total of 2,777 unprovoked shark attacks confirmed worldwide, with 497 of those being fatal. While sharks are often treated as ruthless killers, humans are actually much more likely to die by other means. In the United States from 2001 to 2013, there were 364 fatal dog attacks compared to a mere 11 fatal shark attacks.

And in the coastal United States between the years 1959 to 2010, lighting strikes killed 1,970 individuals while sharks only accounted for 26 deaths.

Reason should lead us to conclude that sharks are not at all as dangerous as they are made out to be, nor are they deserving of the lack of compassion they’ve gotten from mankind. And sadly, a new string of shark attacks along the east coast of the United States is encouraging more misguided alarm from the public.

Shark Attack Numbers Up For Some U.S. States

North and South Carolina have seen 11 shark attacks so far this summer off their combined coasts, none of which were fatal. Injuries ranged from superficial wounds to the loss of limbs for two teenaged victims. What is particularly intriguing about the numbers for this year is the fact they are already nearly double the average number of shark attacks these combined coasts see each year in six. And the summer still isn’t over.

Increasing numbers of shark attacks aren’t unique to just the Carolinas this year – this is a trend that the entire United States has observed since the 1950s. Numbers of shark bites have actually increased over the decades. If it makes you feel any better, your risk of being bitten by a shark actually decreases as more people swim at the beach. Still, more sharks are biting swimmers and we are left asking how and why this is happening.

What’s Behind The Bites?

The increase in shark attacks in the Carolinas this summer has left many looking towards shark experts for answers. And what they’re finding is not that these uniquely evolved creatures are growing in their taste for blood and are finally realizing their identities as “man eaters.” Rather, they are merely animals responding to a variety of environmental conditions which is increasing their contact with humans. As more pressure is placed on the ecosystem and as the sharks respond to their surroundings, conflict with humans becomes inevitable. So, what exactly is leading more sharks into shallow waters where beachgoers congregate?

Dry Rivers and Salty Seas

North and South Carolina are currently in the midst of a water shortage. Every single county in South Carolina is officially listed as being in either a Level 1 or Level 2 drought. Decreased rainfall and increased temperatures are being cited as the reason behind the lack of water flow. The same issues are being blamed for the droughts currently being experienced in 20 counties in North Carolina. Less water flow from rivers and streams into the ocean means big changes to coastal water conditions.

With less fresh water emptying into the ocean, salt levels increase near the shore. And most sharks actually prefer these saltier conditions, enticing them to come into shallower waters where they’re more likely to encounter beachgoers. And sometimes there ends up being an unfortunate meeting between the two based on curiosity and mistaken identity on the shark’s part. As unrelated as inshore fresh water shortages and shark attacks may sound, the two issues actually go hand-in-hand.

Heating Up

Shark Attack Numbers Are Up, But Sharks Aren’t to Blame!Jon Rawlinson/Flickr

Warmer ocean temperatures can attract sharks to certain areas, and this may be the case with the Carolina coasts. Warmer air temperatures also attract people to the coast in order to cool off with a dip in the ocean. And, obviously, this can increase the chance that a shark and a human will have a run-in. While temporary water and air temperatures may fluctuate, the threat that climate change has to cause longer-term temperature increases may present problems for future shark attack statistics. As the environment continues to change, we can only expect animal behavior to change with it.

Chowing Down

A final possible cause behind what scientists are calling a “perfect storm” for shark attacks is the availability of food near swimmers. Sea turtles are currently laying eggs and hatchlings are emerging from their dens and entering the water for the first time. This increase in sea turtle concentrations along the coast is quite enticing for a hungry shark. Large schools of baitfish like herring have also been observed in areas where shark attacks are on an uptick. Again, the appeal of natural prey for sharks draws them closer to the shoreline and closer to a person they may mistake for food in the process.

The Takeaway

Of utmost importance for humans is remembering where we exist in the order of things. We are single organisms in a complex web of other life forms, being supported and effected by a range of environmental factors and conditions. Neglecting to understand and respect the manner in which nature works can lead to some dire consequences.

While not every unfortunate accident, shark attacks included, can be completely avoided, we can conclude that humans are very capable of preventing some of these tragedies simply with the way we carry out our everyday lives.

Shifting climate conditions and waning fresh water supplies are naturally occurring phenomenon, but they can also result from human activity. As we continue to devote large amounts of fresh water resources to wasteful activities such as animal agriculture and fracking for fossil fuels, we can only expect to run into more issues with drought in the future. And that in turn may lead to conditions that favor sharks coming into closer contact with humans when salinity increases at the mouths of rivers as the result of droughts.

Warmer temperatures will cause warmer oceans and thus, shifts in habitat range and activity of many marine animals, sharks included. As their environment changes, it is understandable that they will change how and where they look for food, often bringing them to areas where beachgoers flock.

Looking at aspects of your daily life that can be changed in order to benefit some of the bigtime issues our planet faces like climate change and drought is a great way to move forward. Helping curb the number of shark attacks that results from these issues is just one of the millions of benefits. Reduce your reliance on fossil fuels by reducing the amount you burn. Walk, bike or share a commute where you can. Nix animal products from your diet – you’ll be able to save a lot of fresh water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

Shark attacks may not statistically be of much concern, despite what the media may have you think. However, education and appreciation for sharks can go a long way in helping make the planet safer for both sharks and humans alike.

Lead Image Source: US Fish and Wildlife Services/Flickr