The number of shark attack deaths is at a 20-year high worldwide, killing one in four people who are injured this way, according to a new report.

A total of 75 shark attacks occurred worldwide in 2011, which is close to the decade average, but the international fatality rate averaged 25 per cent, compared to 16 per cent in 2010, says the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File report released Wednesday.

All 12 fatalities in 2011 occurred outside the U.S., in:

  • Australia (3).
  • Reunion (2).
  • The Seychelles (2).
  • South Africa (2).
  • Costa Rica (1).
  • Kenya (1).
  • New Caledonia (1).

"We had a number of fatalities in essentially out-of the way places, where there’s not the same quantity and quality of medical attention readily available," said ichthyologist George Burgess, of the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus. "They also don’t have histories of shark attacks in these regions, so there are not contingency plans in effect like there are in places such as Florida."

'The sea is actually a pretty benign environment, or else we’d be measuring injuries in the thousands or millions per year.' —George Burgess, ichthyologist at Florida Museum of Natural History

Meanwhile, the U.S. had 29 shark attacks but no deaths in 2011.

Florida led the U.S. with 11. Other countries with multiple attacks included Australia (11), South Africa (5), Reunion (4), Indonesia (3) Mexico (3), Russia (3), the Seychelles (2) and Brazil (2).

Surfers were the most likely to be attacked, suffering 60 per cent of unprovoked attacks, followed by swimmers at 35 per cent and divers at five per cent.

"When you’re inside the water, there’s much less chance of sharks making a mistake because both parties can see each other," Burgess said. "Surfing involves a lot of swimming, kicking and splashing."

'We just jump in'

While the higher number of fatalities worldwide was unexpected, the drop in the number of U.S. attacks follows a 10-year downward trend, Burgess said.

"People might argue there’s less sharks, but since the late 1990s, populations have begun a slow recovery. By contrast, the number of attacks in the United States and Florida suggests there’s been a reduced use of these waters."

That may reflect a downturn in the U.S. economy while other parts of the world have made a real push to get into tourism, he added.

Creating emergency plans for emerging and remote tourist spots will help prevent fatalities, and Burgess has been hired to develop a response plan in Reunion Island this spring.

"Ironically, in this very foreign environment that has animals and plants that can do us harm, we often don’t seem to exhibit any concern at all — we just jump in," Burgess said.

Despite the higher fatality numbers, humans are more of a threat to sharks than the other way around, he added.

"We’re killing 30 [million] to 70 million sharks per year in fisheries — who’s killing who?" Burgess said. "The reality is that the sea is actually a pretty benign environment, or else we’d be measuring injuries in the thousands or millions per year."