Shark bites and deaths increased internationally in 2023, with Australia recording the highest number of fatalities and surfers making up the largest group of victims.
The University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File (ISAF) investigated 120 “alleged shark-human interactions” worldwide in 2023. These included nine “boat bites” and an injury in a public aquarium.
Out of the 120 incidents globally, 69 were confirmed as unprovoked shark bites on humans – where the human was in the shark’s habitat and there was no provocation of the animal. This figure rose from 57 in 2002.
Another 22 attacks were provoked, which is defined as a “human initiating interaction with a shark in some way”. They include occasions when people try to feed sharks, touch sharks or free them from a fishing net. The rest were scavenge bites on dead bodies or those where the circumstances were unconfirmed.
Globally, 10 people died from unprovoked shark attacks in 2023, twice as many as in 2022. Surfers made up 42 per cent of shark bite victims worldwide and swimmers 39 per cent.
Four of the deaths were in Australia, three of them attributed to great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) attacking surfers.
Gavin Naylor at the University of Florida says the number of unprovoked bites globally was in line with the five-year average. “But the uptick in unprovoked fatalities is a bit unsettling – particularly in Australia,” he says. “Going forward, we will keep a close eye on incidents associated with surfing spots near [great] white shark aggregations.”
The report comes one week after a woman swimming at dusk in one of the busiest parts of Sydney harbour was severely injured when her leg was bitten by a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas).
Phoebe Meagher at Taronga Zoo in Sydney helps manage the Australian Shark Incident Database and liaises closely with the researchers in Florida.
She says over the lifetime of that database, which goes back to 1791, on average Australia records just one fatality per year, so four deaths in 2023 is a significant increase.
The last time Australia had no fatalities was 2019. However, Meagher doesn’t believe there is a major change in the trend. “The increase in fatalities does not equate to an increase in the number of bites,” she says.
She attributes the increased fatalities in 2023 to bad luck, with deaths more likely when attacks occur far from shore and far from a hospital, for example.