What's up with all these NYC shark attacks?

What’s up with all these NYC shark attacks?

Photo: Karen Doody/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

If there’s one creature of the moment in New York City, even more so than the French bulldog, it’s the shark. There have been six shark attacks on Long Island in the past three weeks, leading to extensive coverage and stress for swimmers and surfers. (No one was seriously injured.) On Monday, Governor Kathy Hochul announced she was ordering government agencies to step up drone surveillance and lifeguards on state beaches. Just a day later, all Rockaway beaches were closed after multiple sightings, including one captured on video.

Shark bites are still extremely rare and deaths are even rarer. Your chance of dying in a fatal accident from a shark is one in 4.3 million, while your chance of dying in a car is one in 84. So what’s going on: is this just hype-up business as usual? Are there more sharks because of successful conservation efforts (good) or because of warmer waters due to climate change (bad)? Or are sharks, older than dinosaurs, just reclaiming their rightful territory? I called Christopher Paparo, a Long Island shark expert and the manager of a marine lab at Stony Brook University.

Are there really more sharks in the waters around New York now?
Sharks have always been around – that’s the bottom line. We were on Sunday and we tagged seven sharks in a few hours. The species making headlines are the sandbar shark, dusky shark, and sand tiger shark. From the 1950’s to the 1970’s they were fished unregulated and really can’t handle the fishing pressure; if you catch one, it’s a big blow to the population. They were almost extinct. Because of better protection – those are prohibited species; you can’t even target them – the population came back. We’ve also managed bunker fishing with the idea that if we put more food into the ocean, some of those species would bounce back on their own. It was extremely successful: the bunker returned and then so did sharks, bluefin tuna, whales and dolphins. And we cleaned our water.

Shark populations around the world are generally declining. Yet New York is one of the busiest metropolitan areas in the world and we have a rapidly growing shark population. That’s a good thing, people don’t want to hear that. But last year there were only 73 unprovoked attacks worldwide. There are 4,000 drownings each year in the US alone, but people still go swimming. It’s scary, and no one wants to be the 74th person on that list – I get that. But with the fear, you get people talking about how to kill sharks.

If we see more sharks because of successful conservation efforts, how much does the warming water matter? How much optimism or fear should I feel?
There’s an effect with sharks and climate change, but it’s not a matter of numbers. It means no more sharks; it means different sharks. We are seeing more and more spinner sharks and blacktip sharks in our waters. And as the ocean warms, some of our local species aren’t happy, and they’re going to shift north.

News 12 seems to go along with this news. Are you looking at that stuff?
I purposely got rid of the cable so I don’t have to watch the news. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some of it, and the media often asks people, “Are you going swimming again?” It seems that, more often than not, they want to show the fear that people are afraid to swim, rather than talk about what’s going on and give people some facts to avoid sharks.

What are some of those facts?
There are a few things you can do to reduce your chances. Don’t swim at dawn and dusk, when they tend to eat. Do not swim in a school or bunker. It’s funny, but I’ve seen people paddling through bunker schools – chances are you won’t get bitten, but why would you? Don’t swim if the water is really dark and murky. The surfer who got bitten – I was at the beach that morning (not that particular beach but another one), and the water was like chocolate milk. Swim in supervised areas.

If you’re in the ocean, chances are there’s a shark near you. You don’t smell them or see them; they are quiet and smooth. People will say, “I swim in Long Island Sound because there are no sharks.” There are sharks there too. You don’t have people getting bitten simply because there are fewer people. It’s not like Jones Beach.

If they wanted to eat us, they would attack a lot more. Sharks are not mindless machines that eat humans. The kind I mentioned can not eat you; they have no jaw structure or teeth to break bones.

What do you think of the governor’s surveillance efforts?
They’re going to find sharks. The beaches are much more closed, not because there are more sharks, but because we are looking for more. We weren’t patrolling two or three years ago; lifeguards didn’t watch. I guarantee that beaches will be closed more often, and will remain so all summer.

Do you think closing the beaches is the right move?
No one wants to be the mayor of jaws. I don’t want to relive that scene where it’s the 4th of July weekend, we have to have the beaches open and then someone gets bitten. I think it’s wise, when they go and see, to close the beach and keep people calm.

Did you see the video of two guys on Long Island? find a stranded shark and then drag him back into the water by his tail?
It looked like a sandbar shark or a dusky one. They definitely appear to be fished, which is completely illegal – they don’t just wash up – but they get caught all the time. That’s part of the problem when you fish for these sharks and then catch them and pull them out of the water. If you drag them by the tail, it’s like dragging your pinky toe. You separate their backbones and dry sand gets into their gills. That’s when someone gets bitten: you pull them by the tail, but they can turn. Now if anyone is in the water, it’s a pissed off shark trying to get away, and he can swim into a swimmer.

In terms of New York creatures of the moment, are sharks the new rats?
No, because rats don’t play a role. It’s an invasive species that shouldn’t even be here. If we could eradicate rats from New York City or the continent, we would help wildlife. If we exterminated sharks, we would be judging ourselves. The disappearance of rats is only positive.

So the sharks are really good news.
Yes. It shows a clean environment. Do you want to go swimming in the Gowanus Canal? You don’t get bit by a shark. I can guarantee that.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

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