Of all the places to have a shark problem, Russia probably wouldn't be high on most people's lists. More than a third of all documented shark attacks from 2000 to 2010 took place in Florida, while 17 percent were in Australia. Russia had none.
But now, in less than a week, sharks have attacked and nearly killed two people in eastern Russia, prompting a flurry of attention in a place that's better known for terrestrial predators like bears, wolves and tigers.
The attacks have also sparked a strong response from local authorities.
At a time when many countries are moving to protect sharks from overzealous fishing, Russia is declaring "open season" on its problem sharks, state-owned RT.com reports. In the far eastern Primorye Territory, where the two recent attacks took place, Gov. Sergey Darkin announced plans this weekend to send out a "special-operation group" to deal with the fish.
"We are planning to take out a number of fishing boats to catch sharks in the near future," Darkin said in a video address. According to RT.com, police boats and Emergencies Ministry teams are now patrolling Russia's eastern coast, searching for the sharks while also warning people of the danger. According to the Itar-Tass news agency, a "pack of large sharks" has been spotted near Russky Island in the Sea of Japan, and all residents and visitors are "strongly advised to refrain from swimming at all sites along the coast of the region."
It's not unusual for officials to react aggressively to shark attacks, especially in tourism-centric places that aren't used to sharks. Egypt waged a brief shark war last winter, for example, following a string of attacks in the Red Sea. But as the AFP reports, the recent rise of attacks may have more to do with humans than sharks.
The Egypt attacks were later blamed on a livestock cargo ship that had dumped sheep carcasses overboard, as well as on tour guides who illegally baited sharks to entertain tourists. More people also vacation in shark habitats now than in decades past, and rising ocean temperatures combined with shrinking fish stocks could lure sharks into areas they normally ignore. That may help explain the sharks in eastern Russia, where sea water has been abnormally warm this summer, although experts say there's not enough evidence to link shark attacks to global warming.
Whatever caused Russia's recent shark problem, the "open season" won't likely have a broad ecological effect — at least not compared with the global shark finning industry, which kills an estimated 73 million sharks per year worldwide, and has helped reduce some species' populations by 90 percent. That's well above the global average of five people who are killed per year by sharks, and it has led several nations recently to pass bans or restrictions on shark finning. The Bahamas, Chile, Fiji, Honduras, the Maldives, Palau and Taiwan have all passed or proposed such laws in the past year, often working with international conservation groups.
Conservationists often worry shark attacks will distract from the larger overall danger humans pose to sharks, and add to the anxiety created by movies like "Jaws" and the upcoming "Shark Night." (As one shark expert tells the AFP, "The attention from shark attacks is completely overblown.") But while the global risk is small, sharks can travel long distances, and changing climates could feasibly push them into unusual places like Russia more often. Most experts agree it's wise to heed official warnings about sharks, yet some Russians are still taking their chances: The New York Times reported last week that "Russians' blasé attitude toward danger is a source of national pride," and "beach-goers continued to take to the water" despite the specter of sharks.
If Russia's special-ops teams can't locate the sharks, they may want to consider calling in Vladimir Putin. The publicity-hungry, adventure-prone prime minister recently discovered a sixth-century Greek vase during a scuba-diving photo-op, and considering his past animal exploits — from tranquilizing tigers to shooting whales — tracking down a few rogue sharks shouldn't be a problem.