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Coronavirus decreases shark bites in Florida town. Or does it?

Staff Writer
The News Herald
The News Herald

DAYTONA BEACH — New Smyrna Beach is known as the shark bite capital of the world for the number of times the sharp-toothed ocean critters nip surfers and swimmers on the beach near Ponce Inlet.

But not this year. This year, not a single New Smyrna Beach surfer or swimmer has suffered a shark bite.

Some credit the coronavirus, which has kept surfers and swimmers away from the ocean. Experts working on the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida are contributing the pandemic to this year's record lows in unprovoked attacks across the world.

Local observers, however, don't believe coronavirus has decreased the number of surfers at New Smyrna Beach.

In the first five months of 2020, there have been a total of 18 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks in the world, down from 24 during the first five months of 2019 and 28 in 2018. Only two of the attacks occurred in Florida, with one in Duval County and the other in Brevard County. There are also four unconfirmed shark attacks under review.

This is an even steeper decrease than the one seen in years past, according to Tyler Bowling, manager of the International Shark Attack Files. Last year's total of 64 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide was already a 22% decrease from an average of 84 annual incidents.

"We have noticed a marked decrease compared to other years already," Bowling said. "We noticed that shark bites have been on the decline for about five years, but never this drastic. There are other factors. Namely, the coronavirus."

Bowling said that in the past 20 years, only 2005 competes with this year's low level of shark bites from January to May.

"If there are less people, it makes sense that there are less bites," he said. "People aren't going to the beach as much. They're staying home because of the pandemic, and less people in the water means less people are getting bitten."

New Smyrna Beach consistently leads the rest of the world in attacks, most of which are minor bites that result when sharks feeding near Ponce Inlet mistake surfers or swimmers for baitfish. To Andrew Ethridge, deputy chief of Volusia County Beach Safety, the decrease has been pretty shocking, mainly because he thinks there have been just as many surfers as ever.

"I would like to say we've had smaller crowds, but we really haven't," Ethridge said. "We're still seeing large crowds down (at New Smyrna Beach), but as far as I know, the shark population is probably the same too."

Ethridge said there were a few weeks in March and April when crowds decreased, most likely due to the pandemic. Volusia County Beaches also closed for a single day in April. But aside from that, he said the surfing and swimming population is around the same, and he's been keeping an eye out for sharks.

"As far as I know, these (attacks) can come and go. It's a combination of things that can occur," he said. "Coronavirus is definitely a part of that."

July is normally one of the months that see the highest surge in unprovoked shark attacks due to an influx of beachgoers. Bowling said it's important to always swim with a buddy, and to avoid swimming at dawn or dusk.

"You just really want to be careful and practical," Bowling said. "Don't swim with jewelry on, avoid lots of prolonged splashing and don't panic if you do see a shark. If you panic, it'll panic. Just stare down the shark and back away from it slowly."