For years, the sleepy beachside community in southeast Volusia County, Fla., has taken its unofficial title of Shark Bite Capital of the World on the chin.
Now, for the first time in years, New Smyrna Beach is getting some competition from nearby Brevard County, according to the world's authority on shark bites: the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File.
In its 2012 report released Monday, the neighboring coastline counties each reported eight unprovoked shark bites, evening the odds for a distinction neither wants to claim. Together, they account for more than half of all shark attacks in Florida historically.
The report also notes that shark attacks in the United States hit their highest level in more than a decade with 53 bites in 2012 - 27 of which were reported in Florida alone, UF shark expert George Burgess said Thursday.
"It's subjective, but your chances of being bitten are not any greater in those counties than other areas in the state," he said. "They just recorded more because of the high numbers of people in the water."
The rising number of bites -- most of which resemble dog bites and require only stitches or bandages -- does not represent a sudden spike but a return to normalcy after a decade of decline, Burgess said.
Economic conditions caused slowdowns in tourism and vacationing families canceled beach trips. Fewer people in the water means fewer possible encounters with sharks, he said. But that's changing.
Population surges in neighboring counties and a recovering economy is tempting more people to the beach than ever before, officials said.
With more than 120 miles of coastline between them, Brevard and Volusia counties boast some of the most popular beaches in the world among water enthusiasts.
New Smyrna Beach -- the epicenter for Volusia's attacks -- attracts thousands of surfers each year to brave the waves near the Ponce Inlet, where the churning waters of the Intracoastal Waterway converge with the ocean. The in and outflow of the tide helps generate gnarly swells.
"The dynamic of the inlet is unique and unlike any other area," said Dave Byron, a Volusia County government spokesman. "With the jetty on the north side, the narrow inlet is traversed daily by pleasure and commercial fishing where bait fish are being deposited."
Sharks love fish. As the waters mingle, so too do the surfers, swimmers, fisherman and marine life.
"A shark bite in Volusia County almost always occurs when a shark is foraging for food and runs into a foot dangling off a surf board," he said. "Usually it's a minor puncture wound from a small shark."
New Smyrna Beach surfer Tyler Tucholski said a good wave is worth the risk.
"About 99 percent of the time it's a case of mistaken identity," the 18-year-old said. "If you get bit here, you can bandage up and walk home. But in other places, you don't go home."
Around the world, seven fatal shark attacks were reported in 2012. All were outside the U.S.
Being the shark-bite capital "is not something we're particularly proud of," said Volusia County Beach Patrol Captain Tammy Marris. "But it's not a dangerous issue for us. The rip currents are more dangerous."
Brevard County officials aren't concerned about the shark-attack numbers' impact on tourism.
"The international tourists (mostly from the United Kingdom) will ask about sharks but we tell them they are more likely to be harmed by sunburn than a shark bite," said Rob Varley, executive director of the Brevard County Tourism Development Council.
Brevard County Chief of Ocean Rescue Jeff Scabarozi said he hasn't seen shark activity increase but there are more people in the water. If his crew members spot the tail fin of a shark, they ask beachgoers to get out of the water for a half-hour until the coast is clear.
As a longtime surfer himself, Scabarozi said it's important to respect the animal and give it its space.
"Sharks are in the ocean; they're there, and there is nothing we can do to change that," he said. "The best thing to do is find out what's going on and ask the opinion of a lifeguard. Know before you go."
TIPS TO AVOID SHARK ATTACKS
Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack solo swimmers
Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active
Do not enter the water if bleeding or wearing shiny jewelry.
SOURCE: George H. Burgess, International Shark Attack File
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