Despite the sensationalized portrayal of sharks in movies like Jaws, the ocean’s apex predators have far more to fear from people than vice versa.
Even though millions of people around the world swim in the ocean each year, just 91 people were bitten by sharks in 2023 and only 10 of those bites were fatal, according to a new report from the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. Out of all bites, 69 were unprovoked while 22 were provoked, defined as a human-initiated interaction such as trying to touch or feed a shark. These numbers — reported by beach safety officers, hospital staff and other emergency responders — are consistent with the five-year global average.
The fact that so few bites occur each year “gives us a pretty strong indication that sharks are trying to avoid us,” says Joe Miguez, a marine ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who compiled data for the report. If sharks thought humans were prey, he says, there might be “thousands of shark attacks each day.”
In 2023, more than half of unprovoked shark bites happened in the United States, with a total of 36. That’s down from 41 the previous year. Following long-term trends, nearly one-quarter of all unprovoked bites globally occurred in Florida. This is due to the state’s ample coastline, abundant prey fish and year-round human swimmers.
One uptick in 2023 was fatalities, at 10 — double the amount in 2022. But put in historical perspective, shark bite fatalities are actually decreasing, on average, as people respond more quickly and effectively to treat bite wounds, says shark biologist Neil Hammerschlag, founder of Atlantic Shark Expeditions in Boutiliers Point, Nova Scotia.
“These fatalities usually aren’t a result of a shark eating someone. It’s a result of blood loss,” says Hammerschlag, who was not affiliated with the report. Sharks use their teeth much like humans use their hands, he says, as sensory structures to test their environment.
Notably, of the nearly 550 known species of sharks, only three caused fatalities in 2023: great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) and tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier).
Four of the 10 fatalities last year were caused by great whites: three in southern Australia and one in California. This is probably because “pockets of white shark populations are growing,” particularly in areas where seals, a main food source for sharks, have rebounded from near extinction, says Gavin Naylor of the University of Florida.
Seal colonies are often found near surf breaks, which also attract surfers. “Going forwards, it’s likely that these bites from white sharks might be a little bit more commonplace” as more people surf and shark populations continue to grow, says Naylor, a shark population geneticist and program director of the university’s International Shark Attack File.
The intent of compiling shark bite data is two-fold, Naylor says: to protect people from sharks and to help these keystone predators thrive (SN: 9/17/15). Shark populations have plummeted by more than 70 percent globally over the past half century, due mainly to increased fishing pressure that’s depleted their food sources.
“These ancient creatures have been on the planet 100 times longer than humans,” Naylor says, and have “magical tricks” — such as many shark species’ ability to move from saltwater to freshwater — that can teach us a lot about how other creatures survive.
While the odds of being bitten by a shark are incredibly slim, Naylor offers simple advice for avoiding shark bites: “Don’t swim alone. Don’t swim too far from shore. Don’t swim at dawn or dusk.”