Why shark sightings are more common at New York beaches

As bathers cooled themselves in the Atlantic surf on New York's Fire Island last Wednesday, Reily Winston held up a smooth dogfish shark his friend had just caught fishing off a pier in an inlet behind the beach. He briefly cradled the bloodied shark in his hands before releasing it back into the ocean.

Shark sightings have become more common along Long Island's shores this summer — and not just the mostly harmless, abundant dogfish.

Since June, there have been at least five verified encounters where sharks bit swimmers and surfers. Though there were no fatalities, sightings prompted officials to temporarily close some beaches to swimming, from New York City's Rockaway Beach to Long Island's Smith Point County Park, where a surfer beat a shark on its snout after it bit his calf.

George Gorman, regional director for the state park system on Long Island, referred to the recent shark interactions as "extraordinarily unusual."

Sharks aren't new to New York's waters. Sand tiger, sandbar and dusky sharks are some of the more common species found near shore. But in the last century or so, New York state had documented only 13 shark attacks.

Experts say sharks aren't setting out to dine on people, but instead are chasing bunker fish near beaches. Recent shark bites are likely mistakes, according to Gorman.

"We think it has to do with the menhaden fish, with the bunker fish being close to shore and the sharks just making a mistake," he said.

Swimmers may also be interacting with sharks while they are feeding.

"When there's a food source close to shore, they'll come close to shore to feed on that," said Frank Quevedo, executive director of The South Fork Natural History Museum. "If people are in the water, they may interfere with or get in the way of shark feeding."

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Dolphins swim in the ocean off of Robert Moses State Park, Wednesday, July 27, 2022, in Babylon, N.Y. Beachgoers often mistake dolphins for sharks.  Shark sightings have become more common along Long Island’s shores this summer and not just the mostly harmless, abundant dogfish. Since June, there have been at least five verified incidents where sharks bit swimmers and surfers. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

Factors contributing to the spike in shark sightings are the improvement in water quality and thriving bunker fish populations due to conservation efforts. Quevedo noted that in 2019, New York passed legislation to protect Atlantic menhaden, the main food source for many species like dolphins, whales, tuna, seals, striped bass and sharks.

"This is all a positive sign that the marine ecosystem is healthy," said Chris Scott, supervising marine biologist for the Department of Environmental Conservation, during a news conference Monday. "And it's important because sharks are a keystone species that regulate the species diversity, abundance, distribution, the marine habitat."

Conservation efforts have led to a rebound in shark populations elsewhere in the northeastern U.S., too. In New England, a big 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 recent years.

The risk of shark attack remains very low — far lower than hazards like drowning. But in response to shark sightings, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul directed state agencies to ramp up shark surveillance. State agencies have added lifeguards and deployed helicopters, drones and boats to monitor sharks along the coast.

Officials say they are still seeing a steady attendance of people coming to Long Island beaches, and shark sightings haven't deterred some beachgoers from going into the water — though they might not be venturing as far out.

While lifeguards kept watch, New York City resident Antoinelle Hilton waded along the beach at Fire Island's Robert Moses State Park.

"Sometimes I'm on the edge, like I don't want to go deep in or I'll stay on the shallow side," said Hilton. "I just make sure I'm by the lifeguards and I'm fine."

While out on boat patrol hundreds of yards away from Long Island beaches on Wednesday, The Associated Press didn't spot any sharks, but did see dolphins. Lt. Sean Reilly, supervising environmental conservation officer with the DEC, says he hasn't seen any sharks from the boat during recent patrols. It's the lifeguards who are encountering sharks near the shore, Reilly said. On patrols, dolphins are a much more common sight than sharks.

"When I started 20-something years ago, we saw a dolphin on rare occasions," Reilly said. "Now every time we go into the ocean, we seem to see multiple schools of dolphins."

During the patrol, a radio alert came in, reporting shark sightings near Fire Island.

"That's where most of the sharks are seen, by people actually catching them because they are not up on the surface most of the time," he said.

Scott said to prevent risky shark interactions, avoid swimming in murky waters and in areas where there are schools of menhaden and seals in the water because sharks might be feeding. Don't swim during dusk, dawn, and nighttime, when sharks feed the most. Swim in groups so sharks don't misidentify humans as prey.

"When people go to the beach...the chances of them getting into a car accident on their way to the beach is more likely than the chances of actually seeing or interacting with a shark when they're at the beach," said Quevedo. "So, my two cents here is to use caution."