BABYLON, NY (AP) — As bathers cooled off in the Atlantic surf on New York’s Fire Island last Wednesday, Reily Winston held up a smooth dogfish his friend had just caught fishing off a pier in a cove behind the beach. He briefly cradled the bloody shark in his hands before releasing it back into the ocean.
Shark sightings have become more frequent off Long Island shores this summer — and not just the mostly harmless, abundant dogfish.
Since June, there have been at least five verified encounters in which sharks have bitten swimmers and surfers. Though there were no fatalities, sightings prompted officials to temporarily close some beaches to swimming, from Rockaway Beach in New York City to Smith Point County Park on Long Island, where a surfer punched a shark in the snout afterward bit her calf.
George Gorman, regional director for Long Island’s state park system, called the recent shark interactions “extremely unusual.”
Sharks are not new to New York waters. Sand tiger, sandbar and dusky sharks are some of the most common species found near shore. But in the last century or so, New York State had only documented 13 shark attacks.
Experts say sharks don’t set out to eat humans, instead preying on bunker fish near beaches. The recent shark bites are likely bugs, according to Gorman.
“We think it has to do with the menhaden fish because the bunker fish are close to shore and the sharks are just making a mistake,” he said.
Swimmers can also interact with sharks while they feed.
“If there’s a food source near shore, they’ll come near shore to feed,” said Frank Quevedo, executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum. “If people are in the water, they can disrupt or impede shark feeding.”
Factors contributing to the increase in shark sightings are improving water quality and thriving bunkerfish populations due to conservation efforts. Quevedo noted that in 2019 New York passed legislation to protect the Atlantic menhaden, the main food source for many species including dolphins, whales, tuna, seals, striped bass and sharks.
“All of this is a positive sign that the marine ecosystem is healthy,” Chris Scott, senior marine biologist for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said during a news conference Monday. “And it’s important because sharks are a key species that regulate biodiversity, abundance, distribution and marine habitat.”
Conservation efforts have also prompted a rebound in shark populations elsewhere in the Northeastern United States. In New England, a sharp increase in the seal population has led to a surge in visits from great white sharks — and the occasional serious attack. Sharks have killed people on Massachusetts cape cod and in Maine in the past few years.
The risk of a shark attack remains very low – far lower than dangers such as drowning. But in response to the shark sightings, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul directed state agencies to step up shark surveillance. State authorities have deployed lifeguards and used helicopters, drones and boats to monitor sharks along the coast.
Officials say they’re still seeing a steady stream of visitors to Long Island’s beaches, and shark sightings haven’t stopped some beachgoers from hitting the water — though they might not venture that far.
While lifeguards stood watch, New York City resident Antoinelle Hilton waded along the beach at Robert Moses State Park on Fire Island.
“Sometimes I’m on the edge like I don’t want to go deep deep or I stay on the shallow side,” Hilton said. “Just making sure I’m with the lifeguards and I’m fine.”
During a boat patrol hundreds of yards from Long Island beaches Wednesday, The Associated Press spotted no sharks but dolphins. Lt. Sean Reilly, senior environmental protection officer at the DEC, says he hasn’t seen any sharks from the boat during recent patrols. It’s the lifeguards who encounter sharks near shore, Reilly said. Dolphins are seen much more often than sharks on patrols.
“When I started about 20 years ago, we rarely saw a dolphin,” Reilly said. “Now we seem to see multiple schools of dolphins every time we go into the sea.”
A radio alert was received during the patrol reporting shark sightings near Fire Island.
“That’s where most sharks are seen, by people who actually catch them, because they’re not on the surface most of the time,” he said.
Scott said to avoid risky shark interactions, avoid swimming in murky waters and in areas where there are schools of menhaden and seals in the water, as sharks could feed. Avoid swimming at dusk, dawn and at night when sharks feed the most. Swim in groups to prevent sharks from misidentifying humans as prey.
“When people go to the beach … they are more likely to be involved in a car accident on the way to the beach than they are to actually see or interact with a shark while at the beach,” Quevedo said . “Well, my two cents here is caution.”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.