At the Florida Museum of Natural History, filling up two five-drawer file cabinets are 2700 detailed accounts of shark attacks that collectively make up what’s called the International Shark Attack File. The name of the database might be somewhat misleading—two recent stories suggest that shark-human interactions should be referred to as “incidents” rather than “attacks.” But whether we think of them as vicious, violent killers or big, curious fish navigating cloudy waters, one thing is clear from the Shark Attack File: Sharks bite more people in U.S. waters than anywhere else in the world.
According to the File, 39% of the incidents in 2011 involving shark teeth sinking into unwitting human flesh occurred in shallow waters off U.S. beaches. That’s way more than Australia, who racked up 14% of shark attacks last year to come in second. And yet, the United States’ share of incidents was the lowest in over a decade—between 2001 and 2011, an average of 59% of confirmed, unprovoked attacks took place in U.S. waters.
Apparently, this trend doesn’t have anything to do with the relative deliciousness of American thigh meat. According to an analysis by George Burgess, a shark researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History and the current keeper of the International Attack File, “the number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year directly correlates with the amount of time humans spent in the sea.”
And that simple fact could explain why attacks in the U.S. have been on the decline. Americans have likely spent less time in the water since the recession, writes Burgess, limiting their exposure. That might not be the whole story, however; Burgess thinks that worldwide overfishing could also mean there are fewer animals out there mistaking a wetsuited human for a savory seal.