An effect of the coronavirus pandemic is unfolding at the nation’s beaches as sharks migrated unperturbed by humans this winter and spring.
A novel side effect of the coronavirus pandemic occurred at the world’s beaches this past winter and spring as sharks plied nearshore waters unperturbed by humans.
The Florida Program for Shark Research issued a special report Friday noting a reduction in shark bites Jan.1 through Thursday as many coastlines were shut down to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
Eighteen unprovoked shark bites have been confirmed globally this year, compared to 24 during the same time in 2019 and 28 in 2018. Seven of this year’s bites were in the U.S., including two in Florida at Cocoa Beach and Jacksonville.
Great white sharks off Florida’s coast signal of southern migration
"It’s a significant decrease compared to the last five years, the last decade and even the past two decades," said Tyler Bowling, manager of the shark research program at the Florida Museum. "We normally don’t do a mid-year report but there were, frankly, just less and the obvious answer is coronavirus but there could be other factors."
In a 20-year comparison of bites, 2020 ties 2005 for the lowest number recorded from January through May, with 15 unprovoked attacks, compared with an average of about 25.
Palm Beach County beaches and boat ramps shut down in late March, reopening gradually beginning on May 18.
The time frame coincides with Florida’s blacktip shark migration. The annual sojourn typically begins in earnest in February as blacktips make their way north to more comfortable water temperatures.
Florida Atlantic University shark expert Stephen Kajiura has tracked the shark migration along Palm Beach County’s coast since 2011, noting a reduction in the toothy snowbirds in recent years. He attributes the fewer numbers to warmer waters. Instead of finding ideal winter temperatures in South Florida, they may be stopping in Jacksonville.
While Kajiura flies the coastline painstakingly counting sharks, he also has physical tracking devices on about 100 blacktips tagged off Palm Beach and South Carolina.
Previous studies on blacktips showed that their return north during the summer months typically ended near Cape Hatteras, N.C., but Kajiura said half of his tagged sharks are traveling as far north as Long Island.
The blacktips’ preferred water temperature is about 72 to 77 degrees, Kajiura said.
"We think we missed the migration this year," Bowling said about the correlation with coronavirus beach closures. "But we have seen a decline recently in bites overall and it could be a combination of things."
Florida, which usually tallies the highest number of bites annually, had eight bites by mid-June in 2019 and seven in 2018. This year, there were only the two minor bites in Duval and Broward counties.
Two bites also occurred in Hawaii, with single bites in California, Delaware and North Carolina.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue reported someone was flown Thursday night from the Bahamas to Palm Beach International Airport after suffering a shark bite, but fire rescue Capt. Pat Wehrle said Friday he had no other details.
While this year has seen fewer bites it has also been particularly violent with the number of deaths related to shark attacks already at three – one in California and two in Australia. Just two fatal shark attacks were recorded in all of 2019.
Ben Kelly, 26, was surfing south of Santa Cruz, Calif., when he was attacked and killed May 9 by what Bowling believes was a great white shark. The Associated Press reported the beach was closed because of coronavirus, but swimming and surfing were allowed.
One of the fatal attacks in Australia is also believed to have been a white shark, but Bowling is still investigating the second attack.
The last unprovoked shark bite in Palm Beach County was in March 2019. There have been a total of 19 bites in the past 10 years.
Bowling notes the mid-year report showing fewer shark bites may change as investigations are completed and a bite may be changed to be a result of a provoked attack.
"We’re still watching what’s going on and we know there may be other things at play," Bowling said about the reduction in bites. "It just seemed like something extra was happening this year."
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.