Worried about NC shark attacks? You shouldn’t be

The horror of the June 2 shark attack that costs a North Carolina teenager her leg brought an amazing response from the victim. She asked people to not condemn sharks, but to protect their environment.

Paige Winter of Havelock was quoted as saying as she recovered from the first of what will be extensive surgeries to her leg and hand: “Sharks are still good people.” Later, the 17-tear-old junior at New Bern High School issued a statement from the hospital: World Oceans Day is June 8 and I’d like to ask everyone to get involved however they can to protect and preserve our oceans and all the life in it.”

Such a response makes you wonder more about the mystery of human benevolence than the unpredictable behavior of sharks. Nonetheless, as many begin their summer vacations, the attack at midday in waist-deep water stirs anew the question — 44 years after the movie “Jaws” — is it safe to go into the water?

Of course it is. Chambers of commerce along the North Carolina coast need not worry. Most people know that shark attacks are exceedingly rare. The Florida Museum of Natural History, home to the International Shark Attack File, notes on its website that a person is 30 times more likely to get hit by lightning than bitten by a shark. The file shows 66 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide in 2018. In North Carolina, the average is one to two shark bites a year.

That perspective is comforting to a point, but there is something so unnerving about the threat of sharks after a recent attack that it is worth asking a few more questions of an expert. Joel Fodrie, a fisheries ecologist at the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences, said sharks may be a more pervasive threat than is commonly thought, but the actual risk is low because sharks — despite the movies — don’t care for beach swimmers as prey.

“It amazes me that we’re talking about one (shark attack) instead of dozens. The sharks are there. The people are there,” he said.

North Carolina’s waters have more than 50 species of sharks, some populations are rebounding from overfishing thanks to conservation efforts, and some sharks are coming in earlier and staying later as ocean temperatures rise because of climate change, Fodrie said.

“You can assume if you are in water that there’s a shark within a few hundred yards of you, but most of those sharks are pretty small,” he said. “There are a lot of sharks out there and there are some big ones. But 99.99 percent of them are not finding human activity a draw. More often than not, they’re spooked. But in a turbid environment with waves breaking, some of those cues get mixed.”

Fodrie has two sons, ages 13 and 8, who “love the water.” He doesn’t hesitate to let them swim in the ocean where he’s far more concerned about a riptide than a shark. But he has a few tips: Don’t swim near inlets where there is a lot of fish activity, be wary of water with a lot of bait fish jumping, and consider swimming more often in the sounds where the water is quiet and clear.

As terrible as shark attacks are, Fodrie said they are the exceptions that prove a rule. “It amazes me there are not nine or 10 (attacks) every year given the opportunity.” he said. “That speaks to how sharks say, ‘I want no part of that. That’s not normal. That’s not good for me.’ ”

On that, sharks and people agree.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com