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Maui has the highest number of tiger sharks, attacks in state

Expert’s talk follows three attacks in three months

Experts tag a tiger shark with a tracking device in the waters off Maui. Maui outpaces all other Hawaiian islands for shark bite frequency from 1995 to 2021. HAWAII INSTITUTE OF MARINE BIOLOGY photo

Not only does Maui have the highest number of tiger sharks in the state, the area also sees the most shark attacks, according to local scientists who have tracked and studied Hawaii sharks for decades.

Shark bite frequency by island from 1995 to 2021 shows that Maui outpaces any other Hawaiian island with about 40 nonfatal bites and five fatal bites, research from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology shows. Oahu is second with slightly more than 20 nonfatal bites. Hawaii island is third with about 15 nonfatal bites.

Despite shark attacks off Maui in November, December and February, shark expert Kim Holland said he and colleagues are surprised that there aren’t more attacks, given how many tiger sharks are actually in the water.

“One of the things that has to come across in this conversation: The amazing thing to me and my colleagues is not how many shark attacks there are in Hawaii, it’s how few shark attacks there are in Hawaii,” he said. “If you think of how many tens of thousands of person hours of ocean users there are in the water and how common we know large sharks are, the fact that we have two (attacks per year) to five (attacks) to zero to eight to two to four to zero attacks per year is really astounding.”

Holland spoke Wednesday night during a free public presentation by the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council as part of its monthly “Know Your Ocean Speaker Series.”

Shark bite marks can be seen on the kayak of Kula residents Daniel and Tristan Sullivan following an encounter with a shark in Olowalu in February. DLNR photo

Maui’s desirable habitat for tiger sharks in waters off South and West Maui overlaps with coastlines that include a high volume of visitor accommodations and human ocean recreation. This leads to more shark bites compared with waters off other islands, Holland said.

Makena Point has the highest number of days tiger sharks have been detected of any areas monitored in the state, with more than 80 percent detection days over the year. Kalama is second at just under 80 percent. Next is Palauea at more than 60 percent, and Olowalu, which is just under 60 percent.

“In other words, there are tiger sharks along that part of the Maui coast every day,” Holland said.

The South Maui areas are attractive to tiger sharks likely due to food availability, he added.

“The whole channel running through from Alenuihaha down through Molokai is a very dynamic . . . very nutrient-rich part of the island,” Holland said. “It probably supports particularly rich fauna.”

A 56-year-old Lahaina man was killed after a shark bit his surfboard at Honolua Bay in December. HAWAII INSTITUTE OF MARINE BIOLOGY photo

Also, the sharks in Maui waters tend to stay in those waters, but Oahu sharks travel to Maui waters, especially in the winter.

“So you have both resident sharks on Maui plus you have tourists coming in from Oahu and probably the other islands as well,” Holland said. “Maui seems to be a mecca for tiger sharks — both resident and visitor.”

Concern about sharks has spiked in Maui recently, especially after attacks over three recent months.

A 56-year-old Lahaina man died after being attacked by a tiger shark while surfing Honolua Bay in early December. A 35-year-old California visitor was hospitalized after suffering “severe trauma” after a shark bite off Honokowai in November. The kayak of a Kula father and son was attacked off Ukumehame in February by what was later determined to be a white shark.

Holland said his colleague Carl Meyer closely researched the kayak attack and confirmed the culprit was a white shark, likely 10 or 11 feet long.

It is hard to know how common white sharks are in Hawaiian waters or their relevance to local attacks, although they have been detected by researchers off the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Holland said.

“We don’t know how many there are — it’s a very difficult question to ask,” he said. “My guess would be there is more now than there were 50 years ago because of how their population has rebounded on the West Coast.”

Tiger sharks are extremely cautious in how they approach prey, Holland said, but white sharks are much more aggressive.

“This is guesswork. I think the majority of times a tiger shark bites a human they realize this isn’t something they’ve eaten before and it’s not part of their diet. They are in the process of reassessing what they’ve done. It’s more often than not that they don’t come back,” he said. “The whole idea of bleeding a prey out is much more the strategy of white sharks.”

Blood loss and shock are major factors in shark bite fatalities for humans, but with first responders trained to quell panic, fasten a tourniquet and get help quickly, fatality rates are going down, Holland said.

The researcher offered two main public safety tips: Don’t swim near swollen river mouths after heavy rain when animal carcasses get carried into the ocean and always swim with someone else or in groups so other people can provide help.

Although shark bites occur around the year, there is a slight increase in the late fall, he added.

Also, evidence suggests that electrical bands and other repellant devices are not effective, Holland added.

Holland is a research professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at University of Hawaii at Manoa and the founder of the Shark Research Group at the institute. For more than 40 years, his research has focused on biology and movement patterns of large marine fishes, including sharks.

Holland has also led the development and deploying of tracking technologies to observe movement patterns in fish. He and other researchers have been implanting or attaching acoustic tags and satellite tags to dorsal fins for tracking.

Acoustic tags use sound, which travels well through seawater, to track the sharks. Satellite tags send positions to a satellite when the animal comes to the surface.

“Hawaii is probably the best place in the world to do shark research,” Holland said. “One is that we have many species of shark here and they are here almost year round. Also, we have access to them within a few hours or sometimes within a few minutes from shore.”

For the full talk, visit Maui Nui Marine Resource Council on Facebook.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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