August 'Shark' Attack was Probably Barracuda

Sept. 12, 2008 — A St. Croix woman who reported she was bit by a fish off Buck Island in August was probably attacked by a barracuda, not a shark, according to National Park Service officials.
Investigators announced their preliminary conclusions about the Aug. 16 incident at a press conference Friday in Christiansted. While the initial accounts said the victim, Elizabeth Riggs, had been bitten by a shark, Park Superintendent Joel Tutein said that the photos of the wound and Rigg's description of the event appear to be much more consistent with an attack by a barracuda.
At the time, Riggs reported that she had been swimming off Buck Island with friends when she got attacked. She was in the water around sunset when she saw a large shadow moving toward her under the water. She hurried to pull herself back onto her boat when she felt a bite on her left foot. The bite was like "a little dog nip," she reported, but when she got back onto her boat she realized it was more serious. The bottom of her foot was severely lacerated, and there were puncture marks on top of her foot.
The injury required 175 stitches.
The pattern of the bite marks were consistent with a barracuda attack, and the description of the attack was also consistent with a barracuda, according to Zandy Hillis-Starr, chief of resources for the park service on St. Croix.
"Their (barracudas) dentition is so sharp, like razors, that you might not even feel more than a nip," she said.
Tutein added that sharks, with their powerful jaws and rows of teeth, bite with a chomp, closing down on and twisting their prey: "It's more of a crushing wound."
Barracudas, with their long, razor-sharp teeth, deliver a more slashing, lacerating bite, consistent with Riggs' wounds.
The investigators also attempted to get a complete picture of what was happening in and around the waters of Buck Island at the time. In the days and weeks after the attack, the park service received scores of calls and tips, and local talk radio was alive with stories. There were reports of someone chumming for sharks, of an individual buying meat at a local market for chumming, and other activities. None of those reports were verified.
"We haven't found any credible witnesses that anyone had seen anyone chumming for sharks," he said.
While the investigation is continuing, the greater issue is education, Tutein said. After all, learning that the fish in question was a barracuda rather than a shark doesn't make the wound any less serious. But there are things people can do — or not do — that will lessen their chances of becoming a victim in the future.
"We need to educate visitors how to act in a marine environment," Tutein said.
For example, the attack took place at dusk, which is a time fish feed. Learning whether there were other boats in the area and whether the people aboard might have been eating and tossing remains of food in the water would also point to activities that should be curtailed. Tutein said he may have to use "special closure powers" to restrict times and places to keep people and predatory fish apart.
"We're the ones with the brains, we're the ones who can change our habits," he said. "They can't."
Tutein added that the press conference coincided with the 33rd anniversary of his going to work for the National Park Service.
"I've worked here 33 years, and in that time we've never had a shark attack" on Buck Island, he said.
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