More sharks are being spotted off the east coast, so is climate change to blame?

Story at a glance

  • The high rates of shark bites seen along the East Coast have alarmed beachgoers and elected officials.

  • So far this year, there have been 31 shark bites with six of them occurring in New York state waters.

  • Shark experts believe it is a combination of conservation efforts and warm water that is causing the high number of sightings.

This week, swimmers were prevented from getting out in the water at two Long Island beaches after three sharks were spotted off the coast and beaches along Cape Cod were closed after 20 great white sharks were discovered swimming along the shore.

Recent observations show that the increase in summer shark activity along the East Coast is not slowing. So far this year, there have been 31 shark attack bites in the United States, mostly in Florida. But this summer, more sharks have appeared in unexpected places like New York, where at least six people have been bitten while swimming.

Shark bites are extremely rare, making each bite a surprising event, especially in countries that have no history with the animal. Before 2022, there were only 12 shark bites recorded in New York history, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History and Florida International University’s Shark Attack File.

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While the boom in shark sightings and bites is still not fully understood, marine biologists have some ideas as to why so many days at the beach this year have turned into a scene straight out of the movie “Jaws.”

Protection can work for sharks

Hunted for their meat, gill plates, fins, and liver oil, sharks have been overfished for decades, killing an estimated 63 to 273 million sharks annually in the early 2000s. A study published last year, since the 1970s, found that numbers of oceanic sharks and rays have decreased by 71 percent due to overfishing.

Because of this, three-quarters of shark and ray species in the ocean are at risk of extinction, the study says.

But protections for sharks such as shark sanctuaries, shark fin bans, and efforts to reduce bycatch and improve fisheries regulation have been in place since the 1990s. Scientists have noticed that some groups of sharks are recovering.

“There may be local increases in shark populations which clearly means you’re going to see more of them coming,” said Yannis Papastamatiou, associate professor of marine biology at Florida International University.

“We may in some cases see evidence that some groups of sharks are starting to re-emerge.”

Their prey thrives this year

Shark biologist Greg Scomal, who serves as the chief fisheries scientist for the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries, believes sand tiger sharks are most likely to blame for the recent bites off New York’s shores.

The docile species, equipped with several rows of terrifying jagged teeth, migrate northeast during the summer and feed on bait fish such as the Atlantic menhaden, which have flourished this year perhaps in part to improve water quality. The New York State Bureau of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation has even captured footage of sharks stalking huge groups of fish around Jones Beach.

“Lots of bait fish are going to feed sharks near shore and if you throw humans into the mix, there will probably be record numbers this year for a lot of reasons…you get the potential for an adverse reaction,” Scomal told Changing America.

Sand tigers are a coastal species and spend their time in shallow waters along the shoreline. But they are known to enter bays and estuaries along the East Coast and have been found in Delaware Bay all the way to the Gulf of Maine.

Great whites, who mainly eat seals, are in a similar situation around Cape Cod where seal populations have thrived since federal protection for the animal was enacted in the 1970s.

Warmer waters force some sharks to migrate north

Climate change could play some role in all of this. Scientists have some evidence that certain species of sharks migrate north as their native waters become warmer. A study of tiger sharks published in January found that the species, which spends the winter in Florida or the Bahamas and moves north during the summer, is expanding its geographic range.

Typically, the Sharks don’t bypass Virginia when they try to reach cooler waters during the summer months, but the study showed that they have extended their season to southern New England. The same goes for bull sharks that have been found in waters off North Carolina and in Missouri and Illinois where rising temperatures have forced them further inland. Bull shark kidneys can recycle salt water making them one of the only species of shark that can survive in freshwater, according to National Geographic.

While the species being spotted around New York and Massachusetts aren’t the ones that scientists have observed moving further north, “in general we’re seeing a potential northward expansion,” Papastamatiou said. “So this could mean you see more sharks going there in the future.”

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Posted on August 06, 2022

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