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MIAMI (Reuters) - Even the sharks are feeling the impact of the global economic slowdown.
Shark attacks on humans dropped worldwide in 2008 to their lowest level in five years, apparently because the recession has curtailed seaside vacations, University of Florida researchers who compile the annual tally said on Thursday.
They confirmed 59 shark attacks on humans in 2008, down from 71 the previous year and the fewest since 2003.
"I can't help but think that contributing to that reduction may have been the reticence of some people to take holidays and go to the beach for economic reasons," said George Burgess, who directs the International Shark Attack File at the university.
"We noticed similar declines during the recession that followed the events of 2001, despite the fact that human populations continued to rise," he said in a reference to the September 11 attacks.
In recent years, attacks on vacationing tourists have been recorded off beaches in remote parts of the globe, such as Cocos Island in the Indian Ocean, where none was reported in the past, he said.
Four of last year's attacks were fatal -- two in Mexico, one in Australia and one in the United States.
La Nina, a meteorological condition that brings deep ocean creatures closer to shore, probably was a factor in the death of two male surfers and injury of a third that occurred in less than a month along a resort-studded stretch of Mexico's southern Pacific coast, Burgess said.
The U.S. fatality was a 66-year-old man swimming at Solana Beach, California and in Australia a 16-year-old boy was killed on the east coast.
The number of shark attacks in the United States, which typically accounts for about two-thirds of the global total, dropped to 41 last year from 50 in 2007. Thirty-two were in Florida, which has a higher concentration of sharks because its warm waters are home to species not found in cooler regions.
As in past years, surfers were the victims of most of the world's attacks, 57 percent. Sharks often mistake them for prey.
"The splashing of arms and particularly the kicking of feet at the water's surface where visibility is poor is provocative to sharks," Burgess said.
He doubted the recession deterred surfers from their sport. "All they have to do is drive to the beach with the board and get into the water, and the rest is free," Burgess said.
But those who just go swimming or wading were more likely to be affected by economic hardship, he said.
"These are sort of the average folks that go to the water for recreation, lie on the beach, work on their suntan and take their kids in the surf for a swim," he said. "I would expect their numbers to decline in 2009."
Editing by David Storey