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Foreign Policy: Sharks Swimming With The Fishes?

Damian Diaz, from left, James Sparks and Justin Lyons pose with an 8-foot bull shark caught Sunday, July 3, 2011 on Bolivar Peninsula beach. The 300-pound shark caught by Diaz and his family was released back into the Gulf after the group snapped a few photos to commemorate the catch.
Courtesy Damian Diaz
Damian Diaz, from left, James Sparks and Justin Lyons pose with an 8-foot bull shark caught Sunday, July 3, 2011 on Bolivar Peninsula beach. The 300-pound shark caught by Diaz and his family was released back into the Gulf after the group snapped a few photos to commemorate the catch.

Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for theWashington Post and the author of .

As if terrorism, warfare, and diseases weren't scary enough, the past year has offered some ominous signs of an impending shark invasion into the waters where we swim, surf, and play, as the number of sightings and unprovoked strikes on humans has ticked ever upward. The number of reported shark attacks worldwide increased 25 percent in 2010, to a total of 79, and warm-weather shark observations off the U.S. East Coast is rising, prompting beach closures last summer everywhere from Brooklyn to Cape Cod. In January of this year, a pilot flying off Palm Beach, Florida, saw literally thousands of sharks, capturing the swarm with his iPhone (and terrifying plenty of humans in the process). A month later, police reported that two great whites had killed a diver off the South Australian coast. And in June, a Cornish mackerel fisherman claimed that a 6-foot oceanic whitetip shark rammed his boat, setting off a British media frenzy. These developments seem to suggest that sharks pose a more serious threat to us now than they did before — as if they're either expanding in numbers, or just more determined to get us.

Headlines such as " Fisherman's boat rammed by man-eating shark off coastline" and " Mom runs for son killed in shark attack," after all, would strike terror into the hearts of even the most confident oceangoers.

In fact, the truth is more complicated. Sharks aren't coming after us; we're coming to them. Humans and sharks have been able to share the Earth for millions of years without a whole lot of interaction. But the two species are coming into contact more frequently than ever because of a variety of factors, including demographics (more people can afford beach vacations and growing urbanization means more people are living closer to the ocean), as well as environmental ones (such as climate change). That's bad news for sharks, whose populations — despite the increased sightings — are in decline. And it has also provoked an international policy fight that pits global heavyweights like the United States and Europe against Japan and China, with small island nations divided between the two sides.

At first glance, sharks — with their sharp jaws, torpedo-shaped bodies, and unusual sensing abilities — appear to be bizarre vestiges of a distant past. But they can also tell us a lot about our present and our future. Where sharks appear in big numbers, coral reefs and other marine life around them thrive because they remove weak and sick animals from the system and can keep midlevel predators in check. When they shift their migrations, scientists often detect a shift in ocean temperatures and prey populations. For researchers seeking to create a more efficient electric battery, faster vessels, or a robot that can track oil and chemical spills underwater, sharks' sleek and extraordinarily efficient bodies offer inspiration for design. In countries where their fins end up at the dinner table, economists can generally find rising incomes. The animal humans fear most has become a global commodity, an economic indicator, and environmental harbinger of things to come.

Most importantly, humans' interaction with sharks shows the extent to which we are plumbing the ocean's depths. After all, they don't venture onto our territory; we encroach on theirs. In contrast to several Pacific island societies, which developed faith traditions around sharks eons ago after encountering them at sea, Westerners arrived late in the game when it comes to dealing with these creatures. Sharks only began to permeate the public consciousness in Europe in the late 1500s, when seafaring began in earnest. The first detailed eyewitness account of a shark strike comes from the 1580 Fugger News-Letter, which chronicles a sailor falling off his ship somewhere between Portugal and India. He caught a line that his shipmates tossed him, but according to the article, "there appeared from below the surface of the sea a large monster, called Tiburon; it rushed on the man and tore him to pieces before our very eyes. That surely was a grievous death."

It took another 336 years for average Americans to begin feeling vulnerable to sharks, since swimming in the ocean was not a popular leisure activity until the early 1900s. At the inception of the modern bathing era, a series of attacks between July 1 and 12, 1916, off the New Jersey shore killed four people and injured another. That week-and-a-half of terror had a series of ripple effects: It not only damaged tourism in the area, but cost President Woodrow Wilson votes in his home state that fall and convinced Americans that sharks presented a real and present danger.

Ever since then, simple demographics have continued to bring humans and sharks closer together. Half of Americans live within 60 miles of a coast, according to 2010 census data. Globally, according to the Save Our Seas Foundation, more than three-quarters of the population lives that near to the sea.

During the 20th century, the increase in shark attacks in Florida — which leads the world in shark strikes almost every year — closely tracked both the state's population rise and the number of people going to the beach, according to statistics compiled by the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File. In 1900, Florida's population stood at 530,000, and there was one unprovoked shark strike between 1900 and 1909; by 1950, the state had 2.77 million residents, and attacks that decade totaled 13; by 2000, when the population had soared to nearly 16 million, 256 shark strikes took place over the course of the decade.

Viewed in context, these are still tiny numbers compared with the overall human population. Jawsaside, the risk of getting attacked by a shark is still much lower than getting killed by fireworks and, most likely, significantly lower than being killed in a vending machine accident. The high-percentage jump in shark strikes last year stems largely from the fact that four people were injured and one killed while swimming off Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh over the course of five days (an event that one local politician bizarrely tried to pin on Israeli intelligence). Despite last year's bump, the average annual number of shark attacks declined over the past decade, to 63.5, while unprovoked strikes in Florida have gone down for four straight years.

People are quick to seize on any shark sighting as evidence of a burgeoning threat from these sharp-toothed creatures, but most of the time there's a simple environmental explanation for their appearance. When professional pilot Steve Irwin — no relation to the crocodile hunter — recorded a massive school swimming off Palm Beach with his iPhone, he was merely filming an annual spring migration of blacktip sharks. Every time a great white strikes a swimmer off California's central coast, people react with surprise. While white sharks are capable of migrating across ocean basins, scientists provedin 2009 that Pacific white sharks spend months near California's coast between August and February, foraging on elephant seals, sea lions, and other animals.

Other times, factors ranging from climate change to the resurgence of a prey population translate into sharks showing up in greater numbers. More great whites have been seen off the coast of Massachusetts in recent years, a trend that scientists largely attribute to the fact that the area's gray seal population is finally recovering after decades of decline. In remoter areas, such as the Pacific's Line Islands, sharks actually outnumber lower-level predators. And massive whale sharks have started gathering in an area off the Yucatán that researchers call "afuera." Scientists still don't exactly know why, but they hypothesize the sharks come to feed on the eggs spawned by small fish called tunny, a member of the tuna family.

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Juliet Eilperin