Sharks vs. Humans: Who is the prey?

Sharks vs. Humans: Who is the prey?

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

Sharks sucked out of the sea and raining down from the sky – devouring innocent bystanders? The recent made-for-TV SyFy channel movie, "Sharknado," strained credibility but lit up the Twittershere!

As campy as it may be, the movie stirs up a primal fear for most of us.

Shark bites always make big news.  But the people who study sharks for a living say your chances of getting bitten are incredibly small, and it's actually sharks that have more to fear from us.

We can understand if Tampa Bay resident C.J. Wickersham isn't convinced.  He has a permanent reminder on his thigh of his encounter with a 9-foot bull shark.

"Guess I'm lucky to be here," he said.

But as bad as the scar looks, shark scientists say what happened to C.J. is extremely rare.  Dr. Bob Hueter is director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

"In Florida, most of our incidents are smaller sharks taking a quick small  bite out of a person's hand or foot, especially surfers on the East Coast that just love to go surfing right among feeding blacktip sharks," he said.

In fact, of the 26 people bitten by sharks in Florida last year, eight were along the Space Coast beaches, where surfers love to congregate.  Dr. Hueter said if sharks really wanted to eat us, those numbers would be much higher.

"Honestly, they have lots of opportunity," he said. "I know people don't like to hear that, but there's lots of opportunity for sharks to bite people if they really were interested in us, which clearly they're not, because so few people get bitten every year."

Dr. Hueter also cautions that not every "bite" is an "attack."  He and a colleague in Australia are trying to tone down the language, which they believe skews the data and perceptions.

"When these things happen, call it a bite, and when it's fatal, we'll call it a fatal bite, and let's reserve attack for when it's clear what the animal's motivations were," he said.

Thirty-eight years after the movie "Jaws" sent us fleeing from the beach, we still fear what lurks in the water.  But Dr. Hueter said it's really the other way around.

Sharks have more to fear from us.

He said sharks in much of the world are being overfished and some species are on the brink. Florida's great hammerhead shark is so depleted, the U.S. government is considering adding them to the Endangered Species Act.

"Sharks did not evolve to be preyed upon," Hueter said. "They evolved as predators and fishing on them has a very dramatic effect if you take too many of them, and that's what's happening in the world today."

A staggering 100 million sharks are killed every year, many of them thrown back into the sea after having their fins lopped off for shark fin soup, a delicacy in some parts of the world.

Dr. Hueter said it's now scientifically documented that when the ocean's top predator disappears, coral reefs die, and there are likely other consequences we don't know yet. 

"You know we may not like the result of this, and if we don't like the result, it's going to be too bad because sharks do not come back quickly," he said.

While shark bites (and attacks) are rare, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk.   He advises following his "5-to-9, 9-to-5" rule:  during the months of May through September, only swim from 9 to 5.  Avoid swimming at dawn, dusk or at night when sharks are feeding.

Don't swim where people are fishing.  Their bait or what they're catching may attract sharks. And don't wear flashy jewelry.  A shark may think it's light reflecting off the scales of a fish.

For more tips, visit http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/Attacks/relariskreducetopten.htm

To find out more about Mote Marine Lab and Dr. Hueter's shark research, visit http://www.mote.org/index.php?submenu=SharkResearch&src=gendocs&link=SharkResearch&category=Shark%20Research

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