For some reason, the summer of 2022 has seen an unusual number of people being bitten by sharks off the beaches of Long Island, New York.
According to the International Shark Attack Files, a comprehensive aggregation of all known shark attacks dating back to the early 1500s, only 12 people were bitten in New York’s waters prior to 2022. So far in 2022, with July not even over, six people have already had one of their extremities gently gnawed by the toothy sea creatures.
The sharks involved are, quite literally, ankle-biters, immature fish less than five feet in length that usually fasten themselves to someone’s foot (although a few hands and an unfortunate buttock also received nips) and then quickly let go after sensing that it wasn’t really the baitfish that they had initially perceived it to be. Most, if not all, appear to be sand tigers, a species that is reasonably abundant in inshore waters, but generally stays close to the bottom and out of the public consciousness until such a mistake occurs.
The International Shark Attack Files notes that
Many bites in this area involved juvenile sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus). Despite their fearsome appearance, their thin protruding teeth are excellent for snagging the small fish they feed on. There is a nursery for sand tigers located off Fire Island New York [a barrier beach located off Long Island’s central south shore]. Many shark bites around the world are from younger individuals in low visibility water. This is likely the cause for some of the bites in this area. Using genetic techniques, the ISAF team previously identified this species from a tooth in the boy’s leg after he was bitten on Fire Island.
Such comments make perfect sense. I fish in the Fire Island area, often targeting sharks in conjunction with a research team from Stony Brook University; through much of July, a phytoplankton bloom left local waters cloudy and green, severely limiting visibility. Combine such impaired visibility with the presence of forage fish, a healthy population of juvenile sand tigers, and people fluttering their hands and feet in the water in unintentional imitation of a wounded baitfish, and the odds of an adolescent shark making an inadvertent error become fairly high.
Calling such accidental bites an “attack” stretches the definition of that word very close to the breaking point.
Unfortunately, as the observed by Larry Vaughn, the fictional mayor in the movie Jaws, “…it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everyone says ‘Huh? What?’ You yell shark we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” While most people’s reaction to the Long Island shark bites hasn’t been anything close to a panic, with some staying out of the water and the rest treating the season as summer-as-usual, a few have lost all sense of perspective, and perhaps any sense at all.
One extreme example of shark-induced hysteria appeared in a letter to Newsday, a broadly distributed publication, which read, “As someone who spent years growing up and swimming at the beaches on Fire Island, it is disheartening to see the problems with the sharks…Why not have the Coast Guard and/or the police fly helicopters, or even use drones, over the waters looking for the sharks to do this: If sharks are spotted, then an explosive device can be dropped between the shore and the shark. The intent is not to kill the sharks, but to scare them away. [emphasis added]”
Fortunately, the problems associated with depth-charging sharks from the air, not the least of which being that, since the fish are swimming just off popular beaches, one would be depth-charging swimmers and surfers as well, are readily apparent to most sapient beings, so that idea didn’t gain any traction. The mere fact that it was proposed is more than a little dismaying.
Some newspaper coverage has been dismaying as well. After a local teenager straddling his surfboard and waving his feet in the murky water was bitten just 45 feet from shore, the New York Post, a publication never known for restrained reporting, declared that the surfer received a “vicious mauling” and then “kicked free from the six-foot man-eater and rushed to shore frantically.”
It was the sort of sensational account that warps the public’s view of sharks and their interactions with swimmers.
While the young surfer did suffer a 4-inch cut on the bottom of his foot, that’s hardly a “vicious mauling.” The shark apparently released the teen’s foot and went away quietly as soon as it sensed its mistake.
That’s not the behavior of a “man-eater,” a hyperbolic and generally inaccurate term that, if used at all, should be limited to the white, tiger, and bull sharks that were responsible for just about all of the fatal North American shark attacks. If the surfer had been attacked by a shark with predatory intent, he wouldn’t have gotten away with just a cut foot, but almost certainly would have lost the entire appendage, if not a piece of his leg. However sand tigers, along with sandbar and dusky sharks, New York’s other common inshore species, lack both the tools and the inclination to do that sort of damage.
Thus, the public’s fears of sharks and Long Island’s “shark infested” waters are unjustifiably reinforced.
It doesn’t help that public officials are sometimes garbling their message. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who presides over the jurisdiction where five of the six bites occurred, unintentionally attributed at least one of them to a tiger shark, a species known to have fatally and seemingly intentionally attacked human beings, rather than to a sand tiger, a smaller animal that only bites people by accident. Executive Bellone did correctly note that, given the species sighted so far, county officials do not expect anyone to experience a serious shark-related injury.
Government’s good-faith efforts to prevent further shark bites probably add to public misperceptions, while doing little to reduce the likelihood of additional incidents. While flying drones over beaches, patrolling with boats and jet skis, and similar surveillance might spot the occasional group of spinner sharks attacking a menhaden school, and so prevent people from finding themselves among the feeding fish, such activities are unlikely to detect a bottom-hugging sand tiger hunting fish just outside the roiled surf, even though it is those sand tigers which are responsible for most of the bites.
The good news, which often gets lost among the breathless hyperbole, is that the return of sharks to Long Island beaches is evidence of a healing ecosystem. As explained by Christopher Paparo, manager of Stony Brook University’s Marine Science Center, “What happened in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, [sharks] were heavily fished, and many of their populations neared complete collapse. Then through regulations and conservation of not only sharks, but their food—the Atlantic menhaden, which is better-known as bunker—these populations have rebounded, and we’re starting to now see them once again in the numbers that they used to be.”
Shark populations around the world in general are on the decline. Yet New York is one of the busiest metropolitan areas in the world, and we have a booming shark population. That’s a good thing—people don’t want to hear that. But last year, there were just 73 unprovoked attacks worldwide. There are 4,000 drownings just in the U.S. every year, but people still go swimming. It’s scary, and nobody wants to be the 74th person on that list—I get that. But with the fear, you get people who are talking about how we need to cull sharks.
Such culling would be foolish, even more foolish than depth-charging sharks from the air. Yet, in the same July 2022 that saw sharks bite Long Island swimmers, a group of fishermen and charter boat captains organized a Florida shark tournament intended to thin the bull shark population. They didn’t even do it because the sharks were biting people, but merely because they were eating a few fish that the fishermen wanted for themselves.
Some tournament supporters’ hostility toward sharks was so great that, according to the website of a Florida television station, local10.com, they were posting things on the group website such as “Kill as many as possible every day please,” and “Big or Small, kill ’em all.”
We’re not yet seeing such antipathy here on Long Island, and hopefully we never will.
Still, so long as sharks are cast as threats and objects of fear, instead of a key component of the marine ecosystem, they will probably always face some level of hostility.
When inspired to fear or hostility toward any native animal, or when faced with proposals to cull sharks from our nearby sea, we would do well to recall the words of pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold, who wrote “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land [or sea] mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”