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Reduce the risk of a shark attack

Stay away from channels and sandbars where baitfish congregate, and don’t wander too far out

Stay away from channels and sandbars where baitfish congregate, and don’t wander too far out

This summer’s shark attacks on two teenagers along Florida Panhandle beaches again highlight the importance of knowing local waters and avoiding risky behavior at the beach, says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File in Gainesville, Fla.

A 6-foot bull shark nearly severed Craig Hutton’s leg June 28 as the 16-year-old from Lebanon, Tenn., fished with two other boys in chest-deep water about 60 feet off the beach at Cape San Blas. Doctors later amputated his leg. Three days earlier 14-year-old Jaimie Marie Daigle, of Gonzales, La., died after a shark — likely a bull, too — tore into her leg as she boogie-boarded with a friend about 150 yards off Miramar Beach, a community some 80 miles from Cape San Blas.

The shark attacked Daigle around a sandbar where baitfish had been schooling. Hutton was fishing along the edge of a 20-foot channel, not far from a hole where sharks are known to hang out and feed.

“One of the best places to find shark is in a channel, in troughs between sandbars, and in inlets where you have increased water flow and more fish to eat,” Burgess says. He says sharks cruise these channels and troughs hunting baitfish. These areas should be avoided, especially when baitfish are around. He says it’s best to stay in groups and not wander too far out.

The boys at San Blas also may have inadvertently laced the water with the scent of blood and food. “I’m told [Hutton] had bait in his pocket,” Burgess says. “I also had a report that either he or one of his companions had a fish on the line.”

Wading out in the water with a floating bait bucket or a stringer of caught fish isn’t wise, either. It can provoke an attack. Joe Mercurio, a Sarasota, Fla., angler and host of Florida’s Nextel Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, knows this first-hand from an experience he had as a youngster. He was wade-fishing in Sarasota Bay with a 30-foot stringer tied to his belt, and on the stringer his catch: a couple of sea trout. “I feel this tug, turn around and look 30 feet behind me,” he says. “I see this small black-tip shark trying to eat the fish off my stringer. I never did that again. It scared the crap out of me.”

Burgess says data collected over several decades show a growing number of shark attacks worldwide — 70 to 100 annually resulting in anywhere from five to 15 fatalities. He correlates this to greater and greater numbers of tourists visiting beaches. This brings more people close to sharks, and many of them have little or no local knowledge: They don’t know where the sharks hang out, and they are more prone to engage in behavior that puts them at risk of an attack.

Burgess says surfers, anglers and swimmers who hang out around sandbars take a calculated risk. In 2003 31 shark attacks were reported in Florida, 14 on the state’s east coast off Volusia County, where there’s an inlet near New Smyrna Beach popular with surfers.