Story at a glance
- A surge in shark bites and sightings along the East Coast has beachgoers and elected officials worried.
- So far this year, there have been 31 shark bites with six of those bites taking place in New York state waters.
- Shark experts think it’s a combination of conservation efforts and warming waters that are causing the uptick in sightings.
This week, swimmers were barred from going out in the water at two Long Island beaches after three sharks were spotted off the coast and beaches along Cape Cod were closed after 20 great white sharks were detected swimming along the shore.
The recent sightings show that the summer’s surge in shark activity along the East Coast is not slowing down. So far this year, there have been 31 shark attack bites in the United States with the majority taking place in Florida. But this summer more sharks have been popping up in unexpected places like New York, where at least six people have been bitten while swimming.
Shark bites are extremely rare, which makes every bite a surprise occurrence, especially in states that don’t have a history with the animal. Before 2022 there were only 12 recorded unprovoked shark bites in New York’s history, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History and Florida International University’s Shark Attack File.
While the boom in shark sightings and bites is still not fully understood, marine biologists have a few ideas as to why so many days at the beach this year have turned into a scene taken straight from the movie “Jaws.”
Protections for sharks could be working
Sharks have been hunted for their meat, gill plates, fins and liver oil and have been overfished for decades with roughly 63 to 273 million sharks killed a year in the early 2000s. A study published last year found since the 1970s, oceanic shark and ray populations have declined by 71 percent due to overfishing.
Because of this, three-quarters of the ocean’s shark and ray species are at risk of extinction, the study says.
But protections for sharks like the shark sanctuaries, bans on shark finning, efforts to reduce bycatch and better regulated fisheries have been in place since the 1990s. And scientists have noticed that some shark populations are recovering.
“There may be local increases in the number of sharks which will obviously mean that you are going to see more of them coming,” said Yannis Papastamatiou, an associate professor of marine biology at Florida International University.
“We may be seeing in some cases evidence of some shark populations starting to come back up.”
Their prey is thriving this year
Shark biologist Greg Skomal, who works as the senior fisheries scientist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, believes that sand tiger sharks are most likely the culprits behind the recent bites off New York shores.
The typically docile species, equipped with several rows of terrifying jagged teeth, migrate to the Northeast during the summer and feed on bait fish like Atlantic menhaden, which have been thriving this year possibly in part to improved water quality. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has even caught footage of sharks chasing massive schools of fish around Jones Beach.
“Lots of bait fish will lead to feeding sharks close to shore and if you throw humans in the mix, of which there are probably record numbers this year for a lot of reasons… you’re going to get the probability of a negative interaction,” Skomal told Changing America.
Sand tigers are a coastal species and spend their time in shallow waters along the shoreline. But they have been known to get themselves into bays and estuaries along the Eastern seaboard and have been found in Delaware Bay all the way up to the Gulf of Maine.
Great whites, which mainly eat seals, are in a similar situation around Cape Cod where seal populations have boomed since federal protections for the animal were enacted in the 1970s.
Warming waters are forcing some sharks to migrate further north
Climate change could be playing some part in all this. Scientists have some evidence that certain species of shark are migrating farther north as their native waters become warmer. A study on tiger sharks published in January found that the species, which spend winters in Florida or the Bahamas and travel north during the summer, are expanding their geographical range.
Normally, the sharks don’t make it past Virginia when they are trying to reach cooler waters during the summer months, but the study shows that they have expanded their season range to southern New England. The same goes for bull sharks which have been found in waters off North Carolina and in Missouri and Illinois as rising temperatures have forced them more inland. Bull shark kidneys can recycle saltwater making them one of the only species of shark that can survive in fresh water, according to National Geographic.
While the species that are being spotted around New York and Massachusetts are not those that scientists have noticed are moving more northward but “in general we are seeing a potential northward expansion,” said Papastamatiou. “So that could mean you see more sharks going there in the future.”
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