No bites so far in ’14 despite sharks’ presence

Compared to the six shark bite incidents confirmed on Maui during the last six months of 2013, the first six months of this year have been relatively quiet with no bites so far, though experts aren’t sure why.

“You can see from the tiger shark tracking website that large tiger sharks have been present in coastal Maui waters . . . spanning the period when bites were occurring relatively frequently (in late 2013) and also the more recent months when no bites have occurred,” said University of Hawaii professor Carl Meyer, who was selected by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to lead a two-year study of tiger sharks around Maui.

“We don’t know yet why bites have stopped despite sharks still being present, but this – sharks present with no bites – is a more typical scenario for Hawaiian waters,” he said in an email Wednesday.

Meyer and a team of researchers are planning a third visit to Maui later this month. The team will be recovering, downloading and reinstalling some of the underwater listening stations that detect acoustic tags the researchers implanted into tiger sharks during their two previous trips to Maui, in January and October.

The underwater receivers were deployed in waters along the Kanaha-Kahului-Waiehu coast, the Kihei-Wailea-Makena coast and at Olowalu, Meyer said. They also will install an additional acoustic receiver along the Lahaina-Kaanapali coast.

The team has tagged a total of 20 tiger sharks in waters around Maui with the acoustic tags, and 13 of those also have been fitted with a dorsal fin satellite tracker, which allows the public to be able to track the sharks’ movements online at pacioos.org/projects/sharks.

Tracking the sharks’ movements online reveals that the tiger sharks have not migrated elsewhere, as the drop-off in shark bite incidents may seem to indicate. As of Thursday, 11 of the tagged tiger sharks were still in waters around Maui County; only two had traveled to waters near Hawaii Island.

“Who knows what the sharks are thinking or doing out there,” said Russell Sparks, an aquatic biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources. “We try to help the public keep these incidents in context with their overall rarity but also to understand that some activities do increase your risk.”

Since the attacks last year, two of which were fatal, the public regularly has been reminded to be wary of their surroundings before entering the water.

Patrick Briney, 57, of Washington died after his right leg was bitten by a shark while he was fishing from his kayak off South Maui in December. Just four months earlier, 20-year-old Jana Lutteropp of Germany died a week after her arm was bitten off by a shark while she was swimming at Palauea Beach off South Maui.

Meyer is scheduled to discuss his research and use of electronic devices to track movements of tiger sharks around Maui at the next Sea Talk, hosted by the Maui Ocean Center, on July 23. The event, which is from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., is already fully booked with a full waiting list, according to an aquarium representative. Reservations are required.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.