The Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File investigated 129 alleged shark-human interactions worldwide in 2020. ISAF confirmed 57 unprovoked shark bites on humans and 39 provoked bites.

Classification Total
Unprovoked Attacks 57
Provoked Attacks 39
Boat Attacks 6
Scavenge 1
Public Aquaria 1
Doubtful 3
No assignment could be made 6
Not Confirmed 16
Total Cases 129

“Unprovoked attacks” are defined as incidents in which an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark.

“Provoked attacks” occur when a human initiates interaction with a shark in some way. These include instances when divers are bitten after harassing or trying to touch sharks, bites on spearfishers, bites on people attempting to feed sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net and so forth.

Of the remaining 33 cases, six involved bites to motorized or non-motorized marine vessels (“boat attacks”), one involved shark-inflicted post-mortem bites (“scavenge”) and one case involved a diver in a public aquarium. Three cases were regarded as “doubtful” or incidents that likely did not involve a shark. These included one case attributed to a stingray, one attributed to an eel and one attributed to a large bony fish, likely a trevally.

In six cases, a shark-human interaction was confirmed, but the nature of the incident was unclear with the available data (“No assignment could be made”). An additional 16 cases could not be confirmed as a shark-human interaction (“Not confirmed”). Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, local law enforcement and health care workers could not maintain their typical level of involvement in ISAF investigations. ISAF will continue to investigate these cases until they can be resolved satisfactorily.

2020 at a glance

Global total of unprovoked shark bites significantly lower than average

The 2020 worldwide total of 57 confirmed unprovoked cases was lower than the most recent five-year (2015-2019) average of 80 incidents annually. There were 13 shark related fatalities this year, 10 of which were confirmed to be unprovoked. This number is above the annual global average of four unprovoked fatalities per year.

Annual fluctuations in shark-human interactions are common. Despite 2020’s spike in fatalities, long-term trends show a decreasing number of annual fatalities. Year-to-year variability in oceanographic, socioeconomic and meteorological conditions significantly influences the local abundance of sharks and humans in the water.

U.S. leads world in number of unprovoked bites

Country Total Fatal
USA 33 3
Australia 18 6
Republic of Fiji 1 0
French Polynesia 1 0
New Caledonia 1 0
New Zealand 1 0
St. Martin (Caribbean) 1 1
Thailand 1 0
Worldwide 57 10

Consistent with long-term trends, the United States experienced the most unprovoked shark bites in 2020, with 33 confirmed cases. This is 19.5% lower than the 41 incidents that occurred in the U.S. in 2019. The 33 cases represent 58% of the worldwide total. This is a decrease from 2019 when 64% of the worldwide unprovoked bites occurred in the U.S.

Australia’s total of 18 unprovoked incidents was slightly higher than the most recent five-year annual average of 16 incidents for the region. Eight bites occurred in New South Wales, two of which were fatal. Three bites occurred in Queensland, two of which were fatal. Five bites occurred in Western Australia, two of which were fatal. Single incidents occurred in South Australia and Victoria.

St. Martin’s in the Caribbean experienced one fatality in 2020. Single incidents occurred in Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, New Zealand and Thailand.

Florida had most unprovoked bites in U.S.

U.S. State Total Fatal
Florida 16 0
Hawaii 5 1
California 4 1
North Carolina 3 0
Alabama 1 0
Delaware 1 0
Maine 1 1
Oregon 1 0
South Carolina 1 0
Total Cases 33 3

For decades, Florida has topped global charts in the number of shark bites, and this trend continued in 2020. Florida’s 16 cases represent 48% of the U.S. total and 28% of unprovoked bites worldwide. However, the state saw a significant drop from its most recent five-year annual average of 30 incidents.

In total, unprovoked bites by state were Hawaii, 5 , California, 4, and North Carolina, 3, with single incidents in Alabama, Delaware, Maine, Oregon and South Carolina. These numbers include one fatality each in California, Hawaii and Maine, a first for the state.

In Florida, Volusia County had the most shark bites (8), representing 50% of the state’s total, in line with the five-year annual average of 9 incidents in the area. The remaining bites occurred in Brevard (3), with single incidents in Duval, Martin, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and St. Johns counties.

Most bites related to surfing and board sports

Victim Activity at Time of Attack
Surfing/board sports 61%
Swimming/wading 26%
Snorkeling/free-diving 4%
Body surfing/horseplay 5%
Scuba 4%

Following recent trends, surfers and those participating in board sports accounted for most incidents (61% of the total cases). This group spends a large amount of time in the surf zone, an area commonly frequented by sharks, and may unintentionally attract sharks by splashing, paddling, and “wiping out.” Swimmers and waders accounted for 26% of incidents, with remaining incidents divided among snorkelers/free divers (4%), body-surfers (5%) and scuba divers (4%).

Risk of being bitten by a shark remains extremely low

Short-term trends still show both fatal and non-fatal bites to be decreasing. The total number of unprovoked shark bites worldwide is extremely low, given the number of people participating in aquatic recreation each year. This year’s increase in fatalities does not necessarily constitute a shift in the long-term trends. Fatality rates have been declining for decades, reflecting advances in beach safety, medical treatment and public awareness. This underscores the importance of global efforts to improve ocean rescue, medical care and shark education.

While Australia had a higher incidence of fatal bites than normal in 2020, this is not cause for alarm. Long-term studies are necessary to determine if the seasonal movement patterns of Australia’s shark populations are shifting. At this time, there is no evidence that the recent spike in fatalities is causally linked to any natural phenomena. It is likely the product of chance, a conclusion underscored by the fact that the number of unprovoked bites in Australian waters is in line with recent five-year trends.

ISAF offers resources for reducing your risk of shark bite and instructions for what to do if you are attacked.

The effects of COVID-19 on bite numbers

While the incidence of bites both in the U.S. and globally have been declining, 2020’s numbers represent a more drastic drop than would be expected based on an analysis of long-term trends. As we first reported in June, the observed drop in shark bite incidents may have been caused by the widespread quarantines, closed beaches and minimized vacation travel in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As ISAF continues to investigate the high number of “Not confirmed” cases from 2020, we may find that the frequency of bites was more in line with previous trends.

corrected shark full graphic

Shark attack numbers stayed ‘extremely low’ in 2020, but fatalities spiked By Natalie van Hoose

Members of the press are encouraged to check out our “Media Resources” page and the “Quick guide to the 2020 ISAF Annual Report” for individual sections of the infographic, an excel file of the 2020 data, and other helpful resources.

Gavin Naylor, Ph.D.
Program Director, International Shark Attack File
Florida Program for Shark Research
Florida Museum of Natural History – University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611 USA
(352) 273-1954

EMAIL: gnaylor@flmnh.ufl.edu.

Tyler Bowling
Program Manager, International Shark Attack File
Florida Program for Shark Research
Florida Museum of Natural History – University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611 USA
(352) 273-1949

EMAIL: tbowling2@ufl.edu

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