- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

It’s a case of man bites shark, perhaps. Or better yet, man beats up shark and lives to tell about it.

University of Florida researcher George H. Burgess has a theory about why worldwide reports of shark attacks are down — the humans are fighting back. No longer cowering in the water, mankind has picked up aggressive self-defense techniques — such as shark-punching — which are effective deterrents.

“It appears that humans are doing a better job of avoiding being bitten, and on the rare occasion where they actually meet up with a shark, are doing the right thing to save their lives,” Mr. Burgess said.

Only seven weeks ago, a great white shark grabbed the leg of 36-year-old Oregon surfer Brian Anderson. Thinking quickly, he slugged the fish in the nose several times, a technique he saw on a Discovery Channel shark special. The shark let go, and Mr. Anderson survived.

“That gentleman did precisely what he should do under those circumstances,” Mr. Burgess observed. “A person who is under attack should act aggressively toward the shark and not follow the advice given to women who are having their purses snatched in New York City, which is to lie on the ground, play dead and give up the purse.”

Worldwide, shark attacks are declining, said Mr. Burgess, who also works with the International Shark Attack File, maintained at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

There were 65 shark attacks in 2004, but 58 in 2005. Fatalities dropped from seven to four. In 2000, there were 78 shark attacks with 11 fatalities.

Other factors influence the number of attacks from year to year, including the overall shark population, the severity of the weather or the availability of “prey,” Mr. Burgess said.

But changing attitudes toward the oceans also play a part.

“There have been huge changes in how humans use the water over the last 20 to 30 years,” he said. “When our parents and grandparents went into the water, they maybe wiggled their toes, or if they were very daring, jumped in and swam. People of our generation are surfing, diving, sail boarding, scuba diving, skin diving and engaging in all kinds of activities.”

Sharks still make big news, though. When public officials Sunday closed tourist beaches during a shark-feeding frenzy off the eastern coast of Australia, eager reporters were there to chronicle the 100-plus hammerheads, nurse and bronze whaler sharks dining upon a glut of fish like “a large, black slick in the ocean.”

Fearless surfers were also part of the story, riding the waves within a few feet of the feed; one was bitten in the foot while standing in knee-deep water, requiring 11 stitches. Last month, an Australian woman was killed by three marauding sharks.

“I think you have got a better chance of dying from skin cancer than from a shark at the moment, really,” one local surfer told CBS News.

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