Attacks by sharks were down last year, but bites by the apex predator proved more fatal, according to an annual report released by the International Shark Attack File.
One of the 10 documented deaths caused by unprovoked shark bites happened in Northern California: an Orange County native who was attacked while surfing off Santa Cruz’s coast.
For the third year in a row, shark attacks decreased around the globe, according to the database kept by the Florida Museum of Natural History’s shark research program. Last year, there were 57 unprovoked bites, compared to 64 the previous year and 66 in 2018, it reported. In 2017, there were 88 unprovoked bites.
Despite fewer attacks, 2020 was the deadliest year since 2013. The average is four per year.
Six of the fatal bites in 2020 happened in Australia, a country that has seen in recent years a sharp increase in shark-related deaths. One was in St. Martin in the Caribbean and three were reported in the United States.
One of those was Ben Kelly, attacked by a great white shark on May 9, just before his 27th birthday. He was surfing near about seven others when his leg was bit by the shark, which experts estimate was likely in the 10-foot to 12-foot range.
The surfboard shaper attended Vanguard University in Costa Mesa before moving to Santa Cruz. A memorial was held for Kelly on May 21 at the San Clemente Pier, his favorite surf break growing up.
Surfers and other board sport athletes made up the majority of those who were attacked: 61% of the cases worldwide, up from 53% in 2019.
There have been several shark bites in recent years in Southern California, though none in the past decade have been fatal.
Southern California has had several non-fatal attacks in recent years, including swimmer Maria Korcsmaros, bit off Corona Del Mar in 2016. Swimmer Steven Robles was bit by a shark near the Manhattan Beach Pier in 2014.
Leeanne Ericson was bit in 2017 off San Onofre State Beach just south of San Clemente. Keane Hayes, 13 at the time, was bit in 2018 while lobster diving off Encinitas.
The United States last year led the world in the number of bites, with 33 attacks, the ISAF report said, though that was less than the 41 the previous year.
Australia saw 18 attacks in 2020, a slight increase, with a five-year average of 16 bites per year.
The higher number of deaths last year is likely an “anomaly,” said Gavin Naylor, director of the museum’s shark research program.
“It’s a dramatic spike, but it’s not yet cause for alarm,” he said in a news release. “We expect some year-to-year variability in bite numbers and fatalities. One year does not make a trend.”
The total bite count last year is “extremely low,” he said, and long-term data shows the number of fatal bites is decreasing over time.
The report is based on what’s considered “unprovoked attacks,” described as “initiated by a shark in its natural habitat with no human provocation” and excludes bites to boats, scavenging and bites in public aquariums.
The decrease in bites raises questions of whether the coronavirus pandemic had an impact on shark encounters.
It’s unclear whether lockdowns and less tourism may have contributed to an unusually low number of bites, or if the dip reflects the challenges of getting data during a pandemic, the report noted. First responders, busy with the coronavirus pandemic, may not have been able to confirm or investigate as many cases as previous years.
While a number of cases remain unconfirmed and unclassified in any one year, this situation was exacerbated in 2020, said Tyler Bowling, ISAF manager.
Bowling said he is still working to confirm 16 reported bites and classify an additional six confirmed bites as unprovoked or provoked. In contrast, nine incidents were unconfirmed in 2019 and nine were confirmed as shark bites, but could not be classified.