Column: Shark sightings are something to celebrate

08/08/2019 6:00 AM |

In recent weeks, quite a few sharks have made headlines around Long Island. First there was drone footage of sharks corralling and then feasting on a school of Atlantic menhaden (aka bunker) in Southampton. Later, a 10-foot basking shark was spotted swimming deep inside Shinnecock Bay. And just last month, some beachgoers recorded video footage of a large shark swimming in the shallows in Riverhead and Mattituck. Is this a publicity stunt by the producers of “Shark Week” or is something much more significant happening here? 

Sharks inhabit every ocean around the world, from the tropics to polar regions, the deep sea to shallow bays, and in some cases even freshwater rivers and lakes. Falling well within that expansive range are the waters of Long Island. The most common of Long Island’s sharks is the smooth dogfish, better known locally as a sand shark. Although they can grow to five feet in length, it is more common to find them in the two- to three-foot range. They have small, flat, blunt teeth that are used to crush and grind prey such as crabs and lobsters.

Most Long Islanders are familiar with the presence of these sand sharks and they are frequently caught by anglers while bottom fishing. What many are not aware of is the fact that Long Island is home to well over a dozen species of sharks, most of which grow much larger than the sand shark. The sandbar (aka brown) shark is another common species and was the shark that was filmed swimming in the shallows at a beach in Mattituck. With the potential of reaching eight feet in length and weights of a couple hundred pounds, they can be quite intimidating when spotted in the wild. But their diet consists of small fish, mollusks and crustaceans, so a swimmer is not on this shark’s menu as a potential meal.

Through movies like “Jaws” and shark attacks that are sensationalized during “Shark Week” programing, we are led to believe that sharks are eating machines that have an appetite for swimmers. The fact is, worldwide there is an average of 80 attacks per year. When you think about how many people are swimming in the ocean every day, that number is very small. Granted, no one (including myself) wants to be a statistic, but the odds of being in a car accident are extremely high, yet no one has the same level of fear about driving as they do about swimming in the ocean. (Maybe if there were a little more fear behind the wheel there would be fewer accidents on the road.)

Sharks have been, and continue to be, heavily fished around the world. It is estimated that humans kill 100 million sharks per year, either as bycatch in other fisheries, victims in barriers and ghost nets or caught for their flesh. The sandbar shark, along with the dusky and sand tiger, have been so heavily fished that they are listed as a prohibited species, meaning it is illegal to possess or even fish for these species. 

One practice that has really jeopardized shark populations around the world is known as finning. A shark will have all of its fins removed and the shark is returned to the ocean to die in this wasteful fishery. The fins are then turned into a traditional Chinese meal of shark fin soup.

There are several reasons for the uptick in the number of shark sightings in recent years. Countries around the world have started to understand that the presence of sharks is vital to a healthy marine ecosystem. As an apex predator, they bring balance by keeping the populations of other animals in check (i.e. white sharks and seal populations). Realizing this, countries have started to tighten regulations on both commercial and recreational harvests of some species — and in some cases (i.e. sandbar, dusky and sand tiger) have installed complete closures. With less fishing pressure, some species have started to rebuild.

In addition to regulating shark catches, fishery biologists are now looking closely at the harvest of forage species such as herring, squid and krill. These organisms are extremely important to a vast number of other species. Locally, the Atlantic menhaden (aka bunker) is one such fish. Everything from birds, crabs, fish, dolphins, whales and sharks feed on this crucial fish. Mostly a reduction fishery (processed into fish oils and fish meal), it went unregulated for years. In 2012, the first-ever coast-wide catch limit was established and within years their population boomed. As menhaden once again became plentiful around Long Island, so did the organisms that depend on them.

Social media is also partly responsible for the increase in shark sightings. As a kid, I would hear stories at the local bait shop about this guy named Mike who spotted a monster shark while bluefishing in the Sound. The details were always sketchy, as the tale was typically being told by a friend of a friend and each time you visited the shop the story would change. Today, as evidenced by the video of the sandbar shark in Mattituck, the entire world has the potential to know of a sighting in near real-time. Additionally, people who would never visit a bait shop are now aware of this shark tale. This new level of public awareness can be crucial for the future survival of sharks.

Working with the South Fork Natural History Museum’s Shark Research and Education Program, we are raising public awareness to dispel the misconception that sharks are mindless eating machines swimming our shores in search of innocent swimmers to feast on. Through tagging research, we are getting a firsthand look into the habits of our local sharks. In the last five years, we have tagged approximately 150 sharks, 23 of which were young of the year white sharks. Twenty of these yearling white sharks were satellite tagged with OCEARCH and the public can track them, as well as other sharks, in real-time through their website. Many of these sharks also have Twitter accounts. As odd as that sounds, it is a way for researchers to educate the public about sharks in a fun and interactive way.

With the daily bombardment of “doom and gloom” found in our newsfeeds (harmful algal blooms, high bacterial counts, fish kills, etc.), it brings a sigh of relief when a shark makes the headlines. Although they will send most beachgoers running for their blankets, a shark’s presence is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, which benefits all Long Islanders.

With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, the Calverton resident is an award-winning member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @fishguyphotos.

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