Cleaner local waters drawing more sharks, experts say

Long Island has a new relationship with sharks, made clear by two attacks and one possible bite in about a week, experts said.

The recent attacks continue an unprecedented escalation for an area that records show averaged about one such incident every 10 years for a century. 

The experts point to several factors that explain why Islanders are seeing more sharks in these waters and, consequently, having more encounters with them.

Conservation efforts have helped clean up the local waters, drawing more sharks and allowing those here to thrive, they said. A resurgence of bunker fish, formally called Atlantic menhaden, has served up a veritable buffet for predators. The warming of the oceans has drawn sharks to more northern locations.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island is seeing more sharks, and, consequently, having more interactions with them, shark experts said.
  • Conservation efforts have helped clean up the local waters, drawing more sharks and allowing those that are here to thrive, they say.
  • Experts worry that more shark-human encounters could turn more people against sharks, which they say are an important part of the balance in the ocean.

Technological advances, such as the advent of drones, have made spotting them easier, and the ubiquitous presence of social media has made spreading the word effortless, said Christopher Paparo, a member of the South Fork Natural History Museum’s shark research team.

"There are a lot more sharks than 10 or 15 years ago," said Paparo, citing the cleaner waters. "We're spotting sharks, whales and dolphins here. In the [19]60s, we did not have sharks, whales and dolphins."

Moreover, Paparo doesn't see the situation changing, not this summer nor in the foreseeable future.

"I think we'll have a sighting every week or two [this summer]," said Paparo, who also serves as manager of Stony Brook University's Marine Sciences Center. "Hopefully, no bites."

As recently as Thursday morning, though, a shark bit a lifeguard in the left foot off Ocean Beach. On July 3, a shark bit a Suffolk lifeguard on the chest and hand as he took part in a training drill off the shore of Smith Point County Park. And on June 30, a man swimming off Jones Beach was bitten on the foot, possibly by a shark. None of the injuries were life-threatening, officials said.

Davis Park Beach on Fire Island was closed to bathers Wednesday after a shark was seen swimming close to shore.

Drones, jet skies and helicopters

Experts said shark attacks have been extremely rare off Long Island. 

The Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File pointed to 10 nonfatal, unprovoked incidents of human-shark interactions in New York over the past 100 years, including the two confirmed shark incidents that occurred recently at Smith Point County Beach and Ocean Beach, according to state environmental officials.

A swimming prohibited sign at Smith Point Beach in Shirley...

A swimming prohibited sign at Smith Point Beach in Shirley on July 3 after a shark bit a lifeguard. Credit: James Carbone

These incidents are considered "non-intentional encounters" and have been attributed to factors including low water visibility and increased baitfish activity in the area at the time, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The United States recorded 47 unprovoked shark bites in 2021, which is 42% higher than the 33 incidents that occurred in the U.S. in 2020, the file said. 

State and local agencies are ramping up their efforts to monitor these predators from land, sea and air.

Beyond the lifeguards' binoculars, crews are using water scooters that are fast and maneuverable. Drones can swiftly scan large swaths of the water, and helicopter crews employ high-powered scopes to spot when a shark is swimming toward shore.

Lifeguards on water scooters and drones are being used to monitor the waters for sharks. Last summer Nassau County introduced its Shark Warning Flag System at its beaches. Credit: Corey Sipkin; Kendall Rodriguez; Howard Schnapp

"It would be nice if we could beef up the number of lifeguards, but there's a shortage of them nationwide," said Keith Kolar, assistant chief of the lifeguards who work at Suffolk County parks. 

Every morning during the summer, Suffolk lifeguards scan the waters with and without binoculars, looking for signs of trouble, including sharks. That could be a triangle dorsal fin cresting the surface or even large schools of fish for sharks' feeding. Staff on paddle boards also patrol the areas around swimmers, looking for sights such as a cluster of seabirds hovering above a school of fish, he said.

"We're seeing a lot more bunker fish. They usually appear in August, but we've seen them as early as May," said Kolar, 45, a Suffolk lifeguard for 31 years. "We've seen schools that are two miles long. Millions of them. You see the frothing water that shows activity from bluefish, sea bass and sharks."

When such activity appears, the lifeguards launch a water scooter. Crews use radios to communicate among themselves, and supervisors can call in police and other rescue agencies, he said.

On a foggy afternoon two years ago, lifeguards at Smith Point saw "something" about a mile out and launched two water scooters to investigate, Kolar recalled. An 18-foot great white shark was feeding on the carcass of a dead humpback whale, and the wind was pushing them toward shore, he said. By the time the fog cleared, Kolar realized the whale and shark were about a quarter mile from the beach.

"We cleared the whole beach. The whale reached the beach, and everyone was safe," he said. "That was the first time we had to clear the beach [due to a shark] in 31 years at Smith Point. The second was Sunday's attack," he added, referring to the July 3 incident. 

Swimmers were allowed back in the water at Smith Point County...

Swimmers were allowed back in the water at Smith Point County Beach in Shirley on July Fourth, a day after a shark bit a lifeguard. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk fire and rescue crews also can send drones into the sky, and Kolar said the county is "aggressively" looking to provide drones for lifeguards next year.

The 182 lifeguards who patrol 4.5 miles of beach in the Town of Hempstead expect to receive drones in a week or so, and a team is already in training to use them, said Justine Anderson, the town's aquatic director.

She said the town had two confirmed shark sightings between 1998 and 2020. There were 21 confirmed sightings in 2020 and 29 in 2021, she said. This year, there have been none, she said.

Cary Epstein operates a drone for the Long Island beaches under the jurisdiction of the state parks department. The state started using drones on Long Island last year, said Epstein, who is a lifeguard supervisor.

When we started looking, we saw there are a lot of sharks.

-Cary Epstein, lifeguard supervisor

"When we started looking, we saw there are a lot of sharks," Epstein said. 

Long Island's lifeguards face a greater risk of encountering a shark, if only because they are in and out of the water so much, he said. Two of the three recent incidents happened to lifeguards. The state has 244 lifeguards at Jones Beach, 173 at Robert Moses State Park beach and 17 on the beach in Hither Hills beach in Montauk, officials said.

When signs of trouble appear, Epstein said, lifeguards blow their whistles to close down the beach, raise a red flag, meaning swimming is unsafe, and notify park administration. He makes a hasty ride to the scene in a beach vehicle, and launches the drone within minutes. The drone hangs 50 to 100 feet in the sky, can travel out as far as a mile, and can scan miles of beach faster and more easily than a boat, he said.

A dozen of the state lifeguards on Long Island are undergoing training with drones, he said.

Nassau County police have stepped up their helicopter beach patrols since the attacks, First Deputy Commissioner Kevin Smith said. 

"They have two men on the helicopter looking around. And they have enhanced equipment — cameras that can get a zoom shot," he said.

The recent shark attacks have prompted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to write to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Richard Spinrad and urge the federal agency to prioritize deploying additional resources to Island shores.

“Whether increasing non-lethal geo-tagging or installing other shark attack prevention technologies, your agency should help locals navigate options and ideas,” he wrote in a letter to Spinrad.

Sharks here tend to be smaller

If a Long Islander encounters a shark, chances are that it will not be a large super-predator, but a smaller shark of about 4 or 5 feet long, said Bob Hueter, chief scientist for OCEARCH, a global nonprofit that conducts research on sharks. 

Davis Park Beach in Brookhaven was closed due to shark...

Davis Park Beach in Brookhaven was closed due to shark sighting Wednesday.  Credit: Liam Darrigo

Large sharks often have their young in the waters off the East End but don't typically come near shore. Their offspring do, though they tend to be small animals of about 4 feet long, he said.

Hueter pointed to a dozen sharks typical for these waters. There's the sand tiger shark, the one with snaggly teeth often seen in aquariums. They're "fairly docile animals," he said. The sandbar shark can also be found here, and they are primarily fish eaters, not mammal eaters, he said.

Dusky and thresher shark pups also show up, he said, as Island waters are a habitat for juvenile sharks.

No shark attack is trivial, but most bites from these sharks will not be fatal, or even close to fatal.

-Bob Hueter, chief scientist for OCEARCH

"These are smaller fish-eaters, not very large," Hueter said. "No shark attack is trivial, but most bites from these sharks will not be fatal, or even close to fatal."

The greater presence of these sharks is actually a sign that conservation efforts are restoring the balance to the oceans. Overfishing, pollution and a movement to kill sharks, largely inspired by the 1975 film "Jaws," caused a massive decline in shark populations in the 1970s and '80s, he said.

In the last decade or so, there's been a swing in thought toward understanding and appreciating the role of sharks in keeping the balance of the food chain, Hueter said.

A sand tiger shark swims in the Lost City of Atlantis shark exhibit at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead in 2015.  Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Sharks help keep prey species healthier by picking off weaker individuals, leaving the stronger ones to breed and therefore improving the gene pool, according to the international marine conservation group Sea Shepherd. Smaller sharks also help keep prey species in check, and many shark species are scavengers that keep the ocean cleaner and healthier.

For example, the presence of tiger sharks has been shown to prevent green turtles from overgrazing sea grass beds, making healthy populations of sharks and turtles critical to the structure and function of sea grass ecosystems, according to the Save Our Seas Foundation.

"It's a great sign of the oceans being healthier," Hueter said. "Sharks are coming back."

The Island's shark fascination

Long Island has a love-hate relationship with sharks.

Many people fear them, but Islanders love to take their summer splash in the ocean, and some notable signs of the local shark fascination have emerged.

The 3,427-pound shark that sits atop Southside Fish & Clam in Lindenhurst. Credit: Reece T. Williams

Customers entering the Atlantic Restaurant and Fish Market in Center Moriches walk under a 12-foot-high set of faux shark jaws. It's been there since the 1970s, and people take wedding and prom pictures in front of it.

The giant shark above Southside Fish & Clam in Lindenhurst — 20 feet long — has stood for 30 years, owner Tony Gambino said. The shark has become a destination for roadside curiosity-seekers.

The shark, he said, is a tribute to the 3,427-pound great white shark caught in 1986 by famous Island fisherman the late Frank Mundus, who was widely believed to be an inspiration for the crusty, obsessed fisherman Quint in "Jaws."

This is the big one: a 3,450-pound great white shark...

This is the big one: a 3,450-pound great white shark nicknamed "Big Guy," landed by Montauk's famous skipper Frank Mundus, right, and Donnie Braddick, in August 1986. Credit: Newsday/Dick Kraus

Inside the restaurant, Gambino said, he's hung about 100 mounted fish, mostly sharks.

"People love it. This place has become a landmark," he said.

Over at übergeek Brewing Co. in Riverhead, owner Rob Raffa recently held a "Jaws" trivia night, along with a lecture on identifying sharks. He's also produced a shark-themed beer — "All Shark, No Bite."

Some shark geeks make a career of studying these prehistoric beasts. Paparo, the shark researcher, said he and his staff regularly trade dialogue from "Jaws," and collect all manner of shark-related knickknacks.

"We love watching the movie 'Jaws,'" he said. When Paparo travels, he added, he often collects things like shark-themed beer cans.

Still, Hueter and other shark conservationists understand that sharks have a lot of haters. He knows that every Fourth of July, as the masses descend on beaches, there will be some incident somewhere that gets people worked up.

Education and conservation efforts have helped change many people's opinions that sharks are just man-eating monsters, he said. But, he said, he worries that more encounters between sharks and people could shift public opinion.

"I'm very concerned that the perception I fought against for a couple of decades will change," he said.

With Dandan Zou