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Thoughts on the shark attacks in Egypt

While we were away on our December blog-cation, sharks were all over the news. Specifically, a series of shark attacks in the resort town of Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt, captured the attention of the media and of beachgoing news watchers worldwide. I normally don’t talk about shark attacks on the blog, but lots of readers have been asking me for my opinion on this incident. Fortunately, even though I was on blog-cation, the rest of the shark blog-o-sphere was hard at work covering this issue.

While it’s difficult to integrate a month’s worth of news stories after the fact, I’ll do my best to provide you with a complete picture of what happened. Please feel free to point out inaccuracies in the comments section.

In the first week of December, five shark attacks in six days struck the beaches of Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt. One was fatal, resulting in the death of a 70 year old German tourist. Others resulted in serious injury, including the loss of limbs.

It’s worth noting that beach tourism is responsible for 2/3 of Egypt’s $12 billion tourist industry, and that an estimated 3 million people visit Sharm-el-Sheik’s beaches every year.

The Egyptian government called in a team of experts to determine what had happened and what to do about it. This team included Dr. George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File, Dr. Marie Levine of the Shark Research Institute, Dr. Erich Ritter, and Ralph Collier.

Calling in these experts was the best thing the Egyptian government could have done. This is not a government known for it’s mastery of science and logic- last year they tried to kill all of the pigs in Egypt to prevent swine flu from re-evolving over there.

Not surprisingly, the Egyptian government took some pretty ridiculous actions (don’t just take my word for it, one minister claimed that the government “Completely failed to handle the crisis”), including claiming that they had caught the individual shark responsible for an early attack (the shark they caught had no human remains in them), trying to kill every shark they could find, and blaming the attacks on Israel. I’m sorry to report that Jews are actually not capable of controlling the actions of wild animals- if we were, my job would be much easier. As I said on Twitter, it is actually possible to be anti-Semitic and paranoid without being stupid… Europe has been doing it for years.

Image from JohnDenugent.com

While I think it’s more than fair to criticize the Egyptian government for promoting racism instead of helping to protect tourists, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out ridiculous actions by others. A Serbian tourist got drunk and killed a shark by jumping on it. A CNN reporter asked government officials if a “Jaws” was behind the attacks. London’s Daily Mail asked “Could it happen here next?”

Once the expert team arrived, we began to see some actual science coming out of Egypt. They quickly determined that multiple shark species were involved in the attacks, including oceanic whitetip and shortfin mako sharks. It is entirely possible that one shark was responsible for more than one attack- at the very least, we know from photographs that one individual whitetip with a distinctive dorsal fin notch was seen at multiple attack sites. A single shark has been involved in multiple attacks before, though it is even more rare than “regular” shark attacks.

The team of scientific experts came out with a preliminary report listing possible reasons for the attacks. These include abnormally elevated water temperature (higher temperature = higher metabolic rate = more food needed), illegal feedings of sharks by dive operators and tour guides that cause them to associate humans with food, the peculiar bottom topography of the region which has deep water (the usual home of these particular shark species) extremely close to shore, local overfishing which prevented the sharks from eating their regular food, and dozens of dead sheep dumped in the water not far from where the attacks occurred.

Wait, what? Dozens of dead sheep dumped into the water? It turns out that this story, weird as it is, it completely true. A cargo vessel dumped their cargo of sheep overboard before coming into port right around the time when the attacks occurred. As George Burgess said, “where there’s smoke there’s fire, and where there is a huge chum slick from dozens of dead animals, there are sharks”.

The rest of these conclusions have met with mixed reviews from the shark science community. Dive operators who safely feed sharks find it difficult to believe that shark feeding could have caused these attacks (though we don’t know the exact circumstances of the Egyptian feedings, local operators may have been doing it in an extremely unsafe manner). Others sarcastically point out that the topography of the region has been there for a long time and it hasn’t resulted in attacks like this before. I’m personally skeptical that local overfishing could result in sharks trying to eat people, particularly one shark biting more than one person. I think the smart money is on the dozens of dead sheep dumped into the water.

What really happened? We may never know. It is, however,  important to keep in mind that despite the media hysteria, being killed by a shark is (while tragic) still incredibly rare.

Finally,this whole event inspired some excellent shark science journalism. A story in the Irish Times hit the nail on the head by claiming that sharks are always guilty until proven innocent, and an excellent post by “Mike Da Shark” on this subject should be required reading for anyone interested in the recent incidents in Egypt (or shark attacks in general).

I think that about covers it, but if I forgot anything or misreported anything, please let me know.