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What you need to know about sharks in Long Island waters

Shark attacks are rare, and they are not telling of normal shark behavior, a researcher says.

Chris Stefanou hauls in a sandbar shark on

Chris Stefanou hauls in a sandbar shark on the shores of Tobay Beach in the Town of Oyster Bay on Sunday.  Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

It’s a shark’s world, you’re just swimming in it.

More than two dozen species of shark call Long Island’s waters home for the summer months, and with them comes "Jaws"-inspired fear about shark attacks. Concern among beachgoers was renewed Wednesday when two children were bitten by sharks or large fish while swimming off Fire Island. 

Here’s what you need to know about sharks in our waters.

8 species you might see here

Sand tiger shark (1)

Length: Up to 10 feet

Depth: 6 to 626 feet

Danger: These sharks prefer shallow waters, reefs and rocky areas. They are generally not aggressive unless provoked and there are few recorded unprovoked attacks.

Blue shark (2)

Length: 7 to 12 feet 

Depth: Surface to 1,148 feet

Danger: This species prefers the cooler waters of the open ocean. They are “not overly aggressive,” but considered dangerous and have been known to attack humans and boats unprovoked.

Great white shark (3)

Length: 22 to 23 feet 

Depth: Surface to 775 feet

Danger: Great whites are credited with more fatal unprovoked shark attacks than any other species. Their swimming patterns take them from deeper coastal waters to open ocean. There is little data that provides a complete picture of the habits and patterns of this species.

Shortfin Mako shark (4)

Length: About 10 feet

Depth: Surface to 1,600 feet

Danger: These sharks prefer colder waters and are a pelagic species, meaning they are found in the middle ranges of the ocean depths. Makos are aggressive and the fastest shark known to scientists. Despite their preference for waters away from the coast, they have been known to attack boats and fishermen.

Thresher shark (5)

Length: 8 to 15 feet

Depth: Surface to 1,800 feet

Danger: Thresher sharks are not considered dangerous. They are known to be timid and generally stay away from populated coastlines unless food brings them closer. They have been seen in both coastal and oceanic water. Juveniles stick to bays and near-coastal water.

Tiger shark (6)

Length: 10 to 14 feet

Depth: Surface to 1,085 feet

Danger: Tiger sharks are among the most dangerous species. They prefer murky surface waters in coastal areas, but can tolerate a wide range of ocean habitats. Tiger sharks are second to great whites in number of unprovoked attacks. They are aggressive hunters and have even been known to eat garbage.

Sandbar shark (7)

Length: About 6 feet

Depth: 60 to 200 feet

Danger: They are largely harmless. Sandbar sharks are bottom dwellers and prefer shallow coastal water. They mostly eat smaller prey and avoid populated beaches.

Spiny dogfish shark (8)

Length: Up to 3.5 feet

Depth: Surface to 2,950 feet

Danger: These sharks swim in schools and do not post a threat to humans, though they do have spines in their dorsal fins that can cause painful injuries. They prefer to dwell on the bottom of coastal waters but do migrate long distances and move through different depths.

SOURCE: Florida Museum at the University of Florida. Illustration not to scale.

Everything else you need to know

How common are sharks in this area?

Long Island’s marine ecosystem is vast and diverse. Beach lovers might be more familiar with dolphins, seals, turtles and whales but sharks live and raise their young here, too.

Tobey Curtis, a NOAA shark researcher, said scientists have confirmed white and sand tiger shark nurseries — areas where young sharks can safely feed and grow into adults  — along the South Shore beaches. Juvenile sharks spend the spring, summer and fall months feeding on bunker fish schools close to shore before they grow large enough to swim away.

“It’s often juvenile, smaller species near the shore,” Curtis said. “They’re pretty much always nearby but people sometimes don’t see them.”

Curtis said schools of bunker fish, a significant source of food, are a possible indicator that sharks and other large sea creatures are nearby.

Adult sharks also pass through New York waters as they migrate to follow food. In 2016, a great white shark nicknamed Mary Lee built a large following on social media as she swam south of the Hamptons. Mary Lee was one of hundreds of sharks tagged and tracked in real time by the nonprofit research organization OCEARCH.

What kind of sharks? Where are they?

Scientists have identified 26 different species of shark in New York waters, but about a half dozen of those species are most commonly seen around Long Island, researchers say. (See more about these sharks below.)

New York sharks generally fall into two categories, open water swimmers and coastal sharks. Coastal sharks are more likely to be spotted by beachgoers because they stay within a few miles of Long Island's edges, said Jon Forrest Dohlin, vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society and director of the New York Aquarium.

These species include sand tiger, sandbar and dogfish sharks. Sand tiger sharks, in particular, are common near Great South Bay, which has been identified as a nursery area for the species, both Dohlin and Curtis said.

By contrast, open water sharks like whites and tiger sharks prefer to chase prey like albacore tuna, which swim faster and deeper into the Atlantic. They rarely venture closer than a few miles from shore, though they may sometimes follow prey more closely. He said fishermen who venture out into the New York Bight or Long Island Sound are more likely to encounter these species of shark.

White sharks appear to have a nursery area near the Hamptons.

“They stay offshore because the species they look for are big and fast like albacore or mahi mahi,” he said. “We do find animals occupying every ocean niche habitat.” 

How often do sharks attack?

Shark attacks are rare, and they are not telling of normal shark behavior, Curtis said.

"We know sharks are here and the bites are uncommon — it’s an accidental thing," he said.

According to the International Shark Attack File, a report where researchers at the University of Florida catalog and track shark-human interactions since 1837, only 10 shark bites have been confirmed in New York waters (this number doesn't include the bites from Wednesday. Officials have not yet confirmed whether sharks were responsible). In comparison, Florida has seen 812 and Hawaii recorded 159.

Researchers said the chance of sharks attacking increases with the number of people entering the water in a shark habitat, and more than 90 percent of attacks worldwide since 2000 were not fatal. Most people bitten were swimming in shallow water or using something like a surf or Boogie board, researchers said.

Have there been any incidents of shark bites here?

When swimmers do suffer bites, it’s not always easy to find out what was responsible. Bluefish also have a strong set of teeth and are known to occasionally bite humans.

In 2008, a man fishing for sharks 25 nautical miles south of Moriches Inlet was bitten on the arm as he tried to remove a hook from his catch. Officials confirmed it was a shark, but did not know what kind.

In 2001, a lifeguard at Robert Moses State Park was swimming between Fields 2 and 3 when he felt something chomp down on his right foot, leaving behind bloody puncture wounds. Officials never determined what kind of animal bit him, though they denied that it was a shark and referred to the injury as a “fish bite.”

In 1950, Newsday reported that a teenage swimmer at Rockaway Beach emerged from the water with a 4-inch “gaping wound” from a “mystery fish,” sparking rumors of sharks along Long Island’s South Shore beaches. The type of animal in this incident was also unconfirmed.

What should I do if I see a shark?

Most sharks don’t want to hurt you and you’re unlikely to encounter a large shark as a swimmer on the beach, experts said.

Still, it’s important to use common sense. Sharks are predators and their teeth are sharp.

If you suspect a shark is swimming near you, calmly and slowly move away and encourage others to do the same, Dohlin said. 

“Sharks are an avatar of a healthy ocean,” he said. “If you see sharks, you’re seeing healthy habitats. That’s something we should celebrate, even as we’re being appropriately cautious around these animals.”

Greg Metzger, field coordinator for South Fork National History Museum Shark Research and Education Program, also said you should be cautious about getting back ito the water.

"Be aware of your surroundings," he said. "If you see a lot of wild animal activity like birds, fish, pods of dolphins, it might be smart to wait for the activity to die down. Chances are, if there's birds, there's likely to be other predators. Be aware of your surroundings before you go to the beach."

What do lifeguards do when a shark sighting is reported?

In the event of a shark sighting (confirmed or unconfirmed), the state parks department instructs its lifeguards to “assume the report is credible,” and immediately inform the park office, police, and water safety staff to heighten vigilance at swimming beaches and other areas in the vicinity of the reported sighting.

Staff are trained to evaluate the likely risk to swimmers based on criteria including the credibility of the report, the proximity of the reported shark location, and input from other public safety staff, according to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

A park official must consult with the chief water safety official on site to determine if the park needs to be closed and, if closed, when it can be reopened after reports of a shark sighting. At state parks, lifeguards or other staff will share information with other areas of the same beach or other parks on the same body of water.

Park management can request a helicopter inspection of the waters if the credibility of the shark sighting can’t otherwise be determined.

How are shark bites treated?

To control the bleeding, direct pressure should be applied "over the actual wound," said Dr. Gregory Garra, an emergency physician and associate chairman of the emergency department at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore. 

Major wounds to a limb might require a tourniquet, he said, which should be wrapped around an arm or leg 2 to 3 inches above the wound, he said, but not over a joint.

Bites to other areas of the body might require rescuers to "pack" or stuff it, preferably with sterile gauze, though in emergencies, other types of cloth would suffice.

Dr. Garra warned that treating wounds to the chest or abdomen require considerable expertise and practice. "For the average citizen, that is probably not the easiest thing to do," he said.  

Stopping the bleeding with pressure likely will require inflicting pain. "You're applying direct pressure to a wound, or packing a wound, or applying a tourniquet — all of them are going to be associated with pain, but it’s better to have that than life-threatening bleeding," he said.

And the pressure must be continuous: do not release a tourniquet, for example, to see if the bleeding has stopped.

Depending on the severity of the attack, further treatments might include “something as minor as irrigation of the wound and sutures” to something "more complex" like removing dead or necrotic tissue, and skin grafting.

Though sharks and other fish are not known to carry rabies, the seawater still might contain bacteria. And because sharks attack people so infrequently, less is known about what infections might harm their victims than if they were bitten by dogs or cats.

You can find more information about how to stop severe bleeding here.

Do people fish for sharks? What should I know about it?

Yes, but it’s a tricky business. Shark fishing is a popular competitive and recreational sport on Long Island, with shark fishing charterboats, annual competitions and even fishermen nabbing sharks from the shore. 

Frank Mundus became an icon of the sport. The legendary shark fisherman from Montauk is believed to be the inspiration for the character Quint in “Jaws." He started shark fishing in 1951 and once caught a 4,500-pound shark, according to his website.

In order to fish for sharks, you must register with the Recreational Marine Fishing Registry and apply for a Highly Migratory Species permit.

Dusky, sand tiger, and sandbar sharks, by law, must be released.

With Joan Gralla and Kimberly Yuen

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