In July, 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast was attacked by a bull shark off Pensacola. His arm was severed and he lost nearly all his blood, but he survived. His is just one of many stories that stirred up a public frenzy last summer about shark attacks in Florida waters. Opinions differ as to whether the number of attacks have actually increased, and if so, the reasons for such increase. Worldwide, there were 79 reported shark attacks in 2000; 51 occurred in the United States. Through Labor Day 2001, there were 52 attacks worldwide, 29 in Florida waters.
One factor blamed for the attacks is the practice of commercial dive charters of putting food in the water to attract sharks for the entertainment of divers.
"If you have one site where you continue to dump more in a local area, the sharks become conditioned over a certain time that this is an area where they can get a free meal,'' says Brian Winner, an associate research scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute.
On Nov. 1, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission banned any form of marine life feeding.
But offshore feeding may not be the only thing bringing more sharks into contact with swimmers. Clay Bryant and Clarke Mixson of Tampa believe there is a correlation between the number of attacks and the net ban on fishing Florida waters.
"We've noticed more sharks in the water since (the net ban),'' says Bryant, a coastal engineer for Tampa-based Gahagen and Bryant. "I think if you looked throughout the state, the surf fishing has picked up. Mullet and everything are running along the shore. Being (in the water) every day, (the net ban) just kind of clicked with us (as a cause). With a surplus of all these bait fish, along comes the predators.''
Florida adopted a constitutional amendment in 1994 to ban the use of gill nets in state waters. More than 70 percent of Florida voters endorsed the measure. On the eastern side of the state the ban extends three miles off shore, on the western side, nine miles.
Much of the work Bryant's crews do is surveying Florida shorelines on both sides of the state. "Beach profiling'' is done around the state to improve or monitor erosion of the beaches. In order to complete their "beach profile surveys,'' members of the surveying crew must wade out to as far as 300 feet with a tape and a rod. The process calls for a rod measurement every 20 feet on a given "beach line,'' which allows the crew to profile the depth at the designated points.
Mixson, who stands 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, figures he has swum for over 4,000 lines over the past 10 years while working for Bryant. He has seen sharks and has experienced the fright of being bumped by them.
"I've definitely noticed a difference in the amount of sharks since the net ban,'' Mixson said. "The net ban has definitely brought different fish in shore. The gill nets used to rape everything, trout, mullet. They'd catch byproducts of all sorts of trash fish. They were catching everything in the net, not just target fish.
"In the summer time, (sharks) like to come in close to the shore anyway,'' Mixson says. "They like to eat rays. Mako (sharks) like tuna and mackerel. Everything is making a comeback. More fish around, more predators.''
Mixson's style has never been passive when dealing with sharks on the job. He attacks the water, wearing swim fins and creating quite a disturbance with his bold and aggressive strokes.
"I power through the water like a submarine with fins, like "here I am and I'm not what you want to eat,'" Mixson says. "I'm not going to sit like a little fish and get hit. If (the water is) clear, (the sharks) don't really care. But when it's murky and that surf's going, that's the scariest place to be.''
Mixson says a surfer's dangling foot looks just like a blue runner.
"They like to bite turtle fins off, too,'' he says.
Brian Winner, however, doesn't believe the net ban is related to shark attacks.
"The net ban, in a sense, can affect fish populations near shore, mullet and those types of things,'' Winner says. "Not to the point where it will change years of migration. Sharks are opportunistic for where they're feeding. But they're not going to change their patterns.''
Winner likened the fish population to an agricultural crop, noting there are years when more fish will hatch because of natural reasons that have nothing to do with a net ban and have a far greater impact on fish population.
"With the net ban, you're talking about bait fish, something at the very bottom of the food chain,'' Winner says. "Sharks are at the very top as predators. A lot of things go on between points A and Z.''
Typically sharks are portrayed as flesh-craving predators, which is a mischaracterization, according to Winner, who says humans don't pass the taste test.
"You read the papers and how the sharks will bite a human and release,'' Winner says. "When they get to a certain size, they just feed on fatty type foods. Humans have more muscle.''
Whether or not they pass the taste test, Bryant's crews must continue to deal with sharks.
"It gets harder and harder to find guys to do the job,'' Bryant says. "I'm already looking ahead to this winter. You're going to have to find some guys to wade out there in the water. You have to find some surfer dudes who want to go out and live life on the edge. It's getting tougher to find guys like that.''
Meanwhile, Mixson has had enough.
"I've seen too many sharks,'' Mixson says. "I got the willies as far as that beach line. I told Clay I couldn't do it anymore.''
Bill Chastain is a Tampa-based freelance writer.