Why Do Sharks Attack?

by Gwynn Guilford

Shark historian George Burgess – the curator of the International Shark Attack File – explains reactions to an unusual string of attacks by a great white shark that terrorized the Jersey Shore in 1916:

One of the most popular theories was one that we hear today. That is, there is not enough fish for the sharks to eat, so therefore they are going to eat humans. The people who are most likely to say it today are sport fishermen, who aren’t catching the same amount or the same size fish that they once did. Back in 1916, it was commercial fishermen who were saying it. It’s not a real defensible argument.

There was a guy who wrote in to the editor of the New York Times saying that these sharks were following U-boats across from the Eastern Atlantic. It was almost an implication that it was a German plot. The world was at war in Europe and the anti-German sentiment was high. All kinds of strange things.

He speculates that the shark might have been "injured or had some sort of deformity" that turned it into a "deranged killer." Marion Diamond looks back at Australia's history of shark attacks, noting that great whites were rarely the culprit – at least until beach culture developed:

The species is seldom identified in these 19th century accounts, but this was clearly an estuarine shark, since it attacked 50 miles from the sea. Deep-sea (pelagic) species such as the Great White are more of a problem now, with a growing population of surfboarders and divers swimming further out from the beach, particularly along the western and southern coastlines where most of these shark attacks take place.

Diamond also digs up an early reference to the Chinese shark-fin trade that the Dish has covered recently. Dish coverage of shark attacks here and of shark-finning here, here and here.