Feeding Frenzy

George Burgess is sitting for his sixth interview of the day. He did six interviews yesterday. Actually, that's down from the 25 to 30 a day he was doing just a couple weeks ago.

Burgess' sudden popularity -- in the last month, he's granted almost 250 interviews, from "Dateline NBC" to Time magazine to "The Early Show" on CBS -- comes from his work as overseer of the International Shark Attack File, which he maintains at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. When the media wants shark-attack statistics or information, he's the first guy everybody calls. Typically, maintaining and sharing that file is the sexy part of his job, but it's no big task. However, in the month since a bull shark nearly killed eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast off the coast of Pensacola, it has taken up most of his days.

"It's got a life of its own," Burgess says, seated at a paper-cluttered desk at the back of what appears to be a fish library at the museum. There are literally thousands of thick textbooks lining the 10-foot-high bookshelves on each wall, with even more shelves sticking out into the middle of the office. Though cramped, it's a far sight better than the adjoining room, which has dozens of varieties of dead fish jammed together in clear plastic jars and reeks like a fishing boat after a day in the hot sun. The gross-out jar, marked "stomach contents," is filled with blood-red fluid and floating pieces of half-digested flesh. Not too pleasant.

"You guys [the media] have truly gotten us into a feeding frenzy," Burgess says, clearing some paperwork off the only other chair in his office. In one folder are handwritten notes detailing every interview: The stack's now several inches high. "I have to keep track of this stuff," he says, "because I have to document why I'm not getting anything else done."

Burgess looks every bit the academic. Six feet tall and stocky, he sports a full yet scraggly beard and thinning, just-as-scraggly graying hair. He has wide-rimmed, square glasses, and he is wearing a polo shirt with the word "Shark" embroidered on the chest.

Indeed, his office is a veritable shrine to sharks, the feared and mysterious predators of the ocean. There are drawing on the walls, along with "B.C." and "Far Side" comic strips that poke fun either at sharks or at ichthyologists. His personal effects also reflect his affection for the prehistoric beasts: a Hops "Hammerhead" beer glass; "Shark Bites," the gummy-bear-like candy in the shape of a shark; a red-wine bottle with a picture of a great white on the label.

Alternately, Burgess appears to loathe and enjoy his fame. At times he is frustrated with the media's sensationalism. But he realizes that what happened to young Arbogast, as heart-wrenching as it is, gives him an opportunity not only to set the record straight, but also to be an advocate for his favorite and much-maligned creatures.

"People are interested in shark attacks," he says. "You're here to talk about shark attacks. But the real story in sharks is in the conservation of sharks. What this does, it offers me an opportunity, as much as I can, to change the direction of the conversation from 'shark bites man' to 'man bites shark.' "

"We, as humans, are captivated by the things we can't control," Burgess says. "There's so much that we can. Most of the world around us we've modified. Because of our brains, we've been able to tear down mountains and build roads through rugged terrain. A charging elephant or lion we can kill with a high-powered rifle. I mean, we can go to the moon, but one-on-one in the water, we're no match for a shark."

Humans are also fascinated by anything that can, if it so desires, consume us whole, he says. And that's not counting the effects of "Jaws," the 1975 blockbuster that portrayed great white sharks as bloodthirsty savages anxious to devour anything in their path. "Clearly," Burgess says, "a lot of erroneous stuff went down with [the movie]." The three sequels didn't help.

Each spring, the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) releases its annual report to the media, listing the where, when and how-manys of the previous year's attacks. The year 2000, as the media loudly proclaimed, had the most shark-bite episodes in recorded history: 79 unprovoked attacks, 25 more than the average yearly total from the 1990s.

Of them, 51 occurred in the United States, and 34 of those happened along Florida's coasts. Volusia County posed the greatest threat, with 12 bites, more than any other county in the country. Worldwide, only 10 people were fatal. In the U.S., only one: A bull shark killed a St. Petersburg man swimming in brackish water behind his house.

This past spring, about the same time ISAF released its report on the previous year, there were six attacks along Central Florida's Atlantic coast in the four-day period between April 11 and 13. It was easy enough to explain: The water was getting warmer and sharks were migrating up the east coast, passing through Daytona Beach at the same time as spring break.

Still, the natural explanation didn't stop the media from announcing an emergency: "Swimmers beware -- sharks hungry" proclaimed an Orlando Sentinel story, which in the fifth sentence hinted that sharks were being more aggressive than even during the record-setting 2000.

"Calendars were on July by the time Volusia had recorded six attacks [last year]," the story read. That bit of titillation came long before the explanation, of course. For example, Ponce Inlet in New Symrna Beach (site of multiple bites) is a prime surfing spot, which means a lot of people in the water at spring break time. Plus, it's a prime spot for fish spawning, which attracts the sharks.

The media furor multiplied when, on July 3, Jessie Arbogast had his unfortunate run-in with the bull shark. The attack severed his arm and left him in a month-long coma, at times barely clinging to life. More than half of the little boy's blood was completely drained. The Sentinel, and other media began keeping daily reports on the boy's progress; as doctors worried that the boy might not pull through, the story became the fodder of national news outlets, from the New York Times to CNN.

Time Magazine did a 3,000-word cover story on the shark attacks, featuring a menacing picture of a toothy great white. Soon after, a Boston Globe report stated that "some are deeming this the summer of sharks."

"When there was a three-month hiatus with no shark attacks, no one wrote a story about that," Burgess says. "But as soon as that [attack] occurred, albeit a spectacular one with a made-for-TV plot to it, now all of a sudden we're under siege."

The media coverage, according to Richard Fernicola, author of "Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks," remarkably parallels how the media pursued a series of great-white attacks along the Jersey coast in 1916 -- the attacks which inspired novelist Peter Benchley's "Jaws."

"You would think we're more sophisticated," Fernicola says. In both cases, the coverage was intense, saturating newspapers with sensational headlines. And in both cases, the media went fishing for answers. In 1916, reporters questioned whether sharks were simply more aggressive, or whether a change in the Gulf Stream or a secret German plot prodded the attacks. "They threw out everything you could think of," Fernicola says.

This year, the media are again looking for reasons. Some news outlets, including "Dateline NBC," pointed to the increasingly popular shark-feeding expeditions which allow divers to get up close-and-personal and hand-feed raw fish to the sharks. Those types of outings can make sharks too aggressive, detractors say. In fact, the "Dateline" correspondent was actually bitten, though not seriously, by a shark he was feeding.

Others, such as CBS' "The Early Show," asked if the overfishing of shark prey has led to the increased shark attacks.

Burgess doesn't think so. Sharks aren't more aggressive than they used to be, he argues. The reason for the increased number of attacks, quite simply, is Florida's rapidly growing population. As more residents and tourists flock to the ocean, there's a greater risk that they'll have a run-in with a shark. Indeed, as colorized graphs on the ISAF's website www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish indicate, there is a direct correlation between population growth and shark attacks. As the population grows, expect even higher numbers, Burgess says.

But simple explanations never got in the way of a good story. "The story now," he says, "is not the attack on Jessie. We're all concerned about him, but the past weeks have not been about that at all. It's about sharks and shark attacks, and keeping the story rolling."

So the calls kept coming in: some from as far away as Colombia, South America; others from such places such as Toronto and France where "they haven't seen a shark since the Miocene [Era]," Burgess says.

World War II, with its high number of air and sea disasters, produced a plethora of shark attacks -- and sent the U.S. Navy looking for a repellent. In 1958, it established the ISAF to catalogue all of the circumstances surrounding shark attacks, namely to find out when and why sharks attacked humans. Housed first at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and then at the University of Rhode Island before it found its current home at UF, the ISAF is responsible for much of the advice many Floridians consider to be common sense.

The admonition to stay out the water at dawn and dusk -- prime shark-feeding times -- comes from ISAF research. So, too, does the warning to stay away from fish schools. Most often, researchers say, sharks mistake people for fish. They may take a bite, but usually, they don't like the taste and spit us back.

Burgess first came across the ISAF while seeking his bachelor's degree in zoology at URI. Then, the mostly dormant file was sitting in a dive-safety program that wasn't run by biologists and had little to do with sharks. After completing his master's degree at UF, Burgess began his work at the museum, and soon after, the American Elasmobranch Society, a leading shark-research organization, decided to relocate the file to some place where it could thrive.

Burgess, who headed the museum's ichthyology department, agreed to take it. "I had a certain amount of interest in shark attacks already," he says, "being in Florida and having looked at shark attacks that occurred already."

The ISAF, which now has about 3,500 entries, at least one of which dates back to the 16th-century, sits in two five-drawer file cabinets. The individual reports include everything from newspaper clippings to interviews to sometimes gruesome autopsy photos -- at least that's what Burgess tells me. He won't let me look; the reports are confidential. Nor does he show much patience for my questions about the more gruesome attacks, replying in a very professional tone -- though slightly annoyed -- that anything with a fatality is serious.

Occasionally, Burgess says, easing back into his more easy-going demeanor, he'll teach a college class, but the majority of his time is spent cataloguing and researching species of fish. Recently, his department has published papers describing a new species of bass in the Panhandle and the smallest shark species known. He helps run the commercial shark-fishery observer program, which sends people out to sea on commercial boats to monitor shark catches. Beyond that, he maintains the massive collection of organisms and works with scientists conducting fish-related research.

Though he maintains an interest in non-shark ichthyology, he says, more and more of his focus has been on the Elasmobranch -- the scientific name for sharks and their relatives. Since the Arbogast incident, he's had little choice.

The worst part about the recent media hype, Burgess says, is the rumor mill. Radio and TV stations across the country have picked up on the rumor that Jessie's uncle, who pulled the boy to the shore and helped retrieve his severed arm from the shark's stomach, may have actually caused the tragedy. According to the rumor, which has been widely circulated via the internet, the uncle sent Jessie and his companions into the water to retrieve a shark he'd hooked.

"That's been going around for two weeks," Burgess says, "and it's really a hateful thing. [There's] absolutely no validity to any of that."

Still, as ABC News reported, shark fishing may have played a role in attacks on the Panhandle. "Many fisherman at the Pensacola Beach Pier," a July 18 story says, "catch shark through a practice called chumming -- putting blood and chopped fish into the water to attract sharks."

As more sharks came, so too did the risk. When a surfer was bitten two weeks after Jessie, pier officials promised stringently to enforce an existing ban on shark fishing.

Despite the media hype, tourists seemed to take the threat in stride. According to Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce Vice President Kevin Kilian, the only calls the Chamber got asking about the sharks came from the media, not any of the 8-million visitors that flock to the tourist trap every year.

As for the natives, Burgess adds, they're used to it: "We get these fairly often and we know what they're about. They happen 30 times a year. It's hard to get this excited 30 times a year."

After "Jaws," sharks (and particularly great whites) got a bad rap. Perhaps, author Fernicola suggests, they've remained in the public psyche because they're so mysterious. "What adds to the enigma," he says, "is the fact that you don't see [sharks] coming. It's almost like they're coming from hell."

But the truth of the matter is that sharks are a vital part of the ecosystem. "If you asked a fellow like me why we need sharks or what their place is," Burgess says, "I would come back and say that I would answer the same way if you asked why we need mosquitoes. Philosophically, all things have their place."

More poignantly, sharks are apex predators -- the top of the ocean's food pyramid. They control the population not only of their prey, but also of their prey's prey. If a species of shark died off, there's no way of knowing what the ramifications would be. But Burgess says it wouldn't be good.

Indeed, sharks are one of the planet's oldest creatures: According to scientists, they have a remarkable 400-million years of evolutionary history and have stayed unchanged for the last 70-million years. Along with their incredible sensory skills -- they hunt prey by sensing the electronic signals from a fish's heart and they use the earth's magnetic field to navigate -- some speculate that the reason for their longevity is their low cancer rates compared to other fish and humans.

Only a handful of the more than 400 species of sharks ever develops cancer, and that fact has given rise to the mass marketing of shark cartilage as a cancer treatment. Clinical tests, however, have failed to prove that it works. More trials are underway.

Man poses a much greater risk to sharks than vice versa. Indeed, shark attacks are, statistically speaking, hardly a threat. In Florida, you're about six times more likely to get struck by lightning than to be attacked by a shark. Moreover, one out of approximately 45 Florida shark bites is fatal; one out of every three-and-a-half lightning strikes is. As Burgess notes on his web site, more people are killed driving to and from the beach each year than are killed by sharks in the water.

But that doesn't matter in the court of public perception. With sharks -- all sharks, even the docile species -- lumped into the "killer" category, no one seemed to notice as they were fished nearly to extinction. An estimated 100-million sharks are killed each year, commercially, recreationally and sometimes by accident.

Meanwhile, researchers say, sharks have a low reproductive capacity: They take up to 21 years to reach sexual maturity, and then they produce small litters. Thus, they don't rebound well from overfishing. Indeed, some populations, including the dusky and sand shark, have decreased 80 percent in the last ten years.

In Asia, says Colin Simpfendorfer of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, shark fins are extensively used for soup. In Hong Kong, adds Merry Camhi of the National Audubon Society, one bowl of sharkfin soup can net more than $90.

With that high a profit margin, shark fishers began a practice known as "finning" -- killing a shark, removing its fin and discarding the waste materials back into the ocean. Since only five percent of a shark's body weight lies in the fin, conservationists say, that's a very wasteful practice. And thousands of sharks die in the process.

Congress agreed. Last year, it banned finning by U.S. fisherman in the Pacific Ocean, adding to a ban in place since 1994 in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. But, as Simpfendorfer points out, some shark meat is seen as quite tasty, and along the east coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, they're fished hard despite the finning prohibition. As a result, many species have become endangered, and state and federal governments have stepped in to establish limits on the number of sharks that can be taken. Florida all but banned commercial shark fishing, setting a one-shark-per-person-per-day limit. In federal waters, the regulations aren't quite as strict.

In 1993, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which oversees fishing policy in federal waters, placed the first limits on large coastal sharks, a class of 22 species that comprise 80 percent of fished sharks. Five years later, an assessment showed that the existing regulations weren't doing enough -- that even if shark fishing ceased entirely, it would take 30 years to get the populations back to 1970s numbers.

Despite the very good evidence that shark populations are decreasing, Camhi says, "we can't get government to move forward."

But fishing isn't the only man-made threat to sharks. There's some evidence that pollutants from industry and agriculture are disrupting shark reproduction, according to Simpfendorfer. In Florida, he says, the more industry-heavy Tampa Bay area has been harder hit than the tourism-heavy Key West.

In light of the recent attacks, though, not everybody would see an increase in shark numbers as a good thing. "Sure," Burgess says, "if we have more sharks in the water, we're going to have more shark attacks." But, he adds, the increase won't be drastic. Moreover, he believes that the majority of people recognize the benefits of returning shark populations to a more normal level.

With more bad bites, he admits, all that could change. And because he is concerned about bad public relations, he's opposed to the South Florida shark-feeding operations. "[Conservationists have been trying] to reshape the image of sharks since the disaster of 'Jaws,'" Burgess says. "And I think we've been largely successful in recent years. You look at the Discovery Channel and places like that and you see a more balanced view of sharks.

"What happens, though, when during one of these dive operations, a shark takes somebody's arm off?" he asks. "They'd come back with their video, and their still shots are going to be sold to the "Weekly World News," to every tabloid TV show, and it would be played ad nauseam. Who do you think's gonna get blamed, the man or the shark?"

With all he's seen, from interviewing shark-attack victims to viewing the gory autopsy photos, you'd think that (science aside) Burgess would have some second thoughts before stepping foot in the ocean. It would be an understandable, if not natural, reaction.

"I don't fear the ocean," Burgess says. "I have a respect. The reality is, when we enter the ocean, we're entering a wilderness. That's not our environment; land is our environment. We're not adapted to be part of the sea. Does that mean I'm scared? No. Does it mean I [think] about what I do? Sure. There are situations I will avoid."

The key thing to remember, he says, is that the ocean isn't your backyard pool. It's a full, active ecosystem, full of thousands of creatures. Most are benign, but some can and will hurt you.

That simple message, Burgess says, is what the ISAF is all about.

"Part of what we do here is important," he says. "A great deal of our time is spent doing exactly what we're doing right now. That's passing the word about sharks. We take our responsibility seriously. We'd rather be talking to you and giving you scientifically credible answers than to have you talk to some schmuck who doesn't know the first thing about sharks."


Since 1990, Orlando Weekly has served as the free, independent voice of Orlando, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an Orlando Weekly Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today because you love us, too.

Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles

Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.