The annual wave of shark shows on the Discovery and National Geographic channels never fails to inspire a wave of comments concerning shark encounters. On one hand, they do a good job making a case for sharks being an important link to the oceans food chain, and also pointing out the need to conserve and protect these valuable pelagics. On the other hand, the over-dramatization and hyperbole associated with some of the shows does an injustice to their educational value by tarnishing their credibility. This might appeal to the average viewer, but for those who make the ocean their playground, the hyperbole can be a hard pill to swallow. However, when all is said and done, these shows do provide some valuable insights into shark behavior and migratory patterns.
These shows do leave some anglers and those who like to swim and surf in our ocean waters wondering whether they should be more concerned about shark encounters (be sure to check out Dave Anderson’s article in the upcoming August issue). I was happy to see that the segment entitled Terror On Fire Island which aired last season, did not as far as I know, appear this year. It concerned two encounters – notice I did not say shark attacks – on Fire Island where a pair of youngsters suffered minor wounds from what apparently were sand tigers. These encounters happened on the same day, approximately four miles apart. The show entertained the possibility of it being one rogue shark prowling the waters of Fire Island and threatening beach goers. Now of course it had to be upsetting to the youngsters involved and their parents, but interspersing shots of great whites slicing through the water was a bit overdone, and did put a scare into people who did not know any better. To Discovery Channel’s credit, the segment did offer up some valuable information such as Great South and Moriches bays becoming a nursery ground for sand tigers, and that ultimately, these incidents were the result of small, young sand tigers “testing” sources of food, which is a far cry from a shark attacking a human.
We’ve known for many years that Great South Bay serves as a nursery ground for sandbar sharks, and I’ve encountered numerous sharks, including an estimated 400-pound mako and a 600 to 700-pound great white, in our near shore waters over the past 50 years. During this time I can’t ever remember a documented shark attack on Long Island’s beaches. So the sharks have always been there, and the question now is, are there more of them and should we be more concerned?
While some scientists and marine biologists attribute increased shark sightings and encounters to better technology and public awareness, rather than an increase in the number of sharks roaming our near shore waters, I have to disagree. The evidence is very clear that the number of sharks in our waters has increased dramatically. Federal regulations protecting sandbar (brown) sharks and sand tigers have no doubt contributed to the increase. Surf fishermen have been relying on bunker chunks to catch bass and blues during the summer doldrums for as long as I can remember. Hooking a shark, excluding dogfish and sand sharks, was a rarity until the last few seasons. The past two summers, it was not unusual to get reports of as many as a dozen sharks hooked in one night by some casters. Most are sand tigers and sandbars, but there have been small threshers and makos beached as well. The protected status of these sharks means they cannot be targeted, but anglers hoping for a bass or blue cannot avoid hooking them. Warmer ocean waters have also led to reports of spinner, bull, black tip and white tip sharks appearing off Long Island’s shores.
Sand tigers and sandbars are not the only sharks on the increase along our shores. The East End of the Island has been identified as a nursing ground for great whites and numerous pups weighing 300 to 600 pounds have been recorded in Montauk’s near shore waters the past couple of years. The rapidly expanding seal population at the point has resulted in an increased number of great whites prowling East End waters, but nothing like Cape Cod where numerous great whites now spend months due to cooler waters and an endless supply of seals. Those who swim out to distant rocks on Montauk’s south side might have reason to be cautious (a black wetsuit just might be mistaken for seal), but the reality is that most of the sharks in our waters pose little threat to surf fishermen.