Shark bites on Long Island dominated headlines of local and national publications over the summer after five people were bitten during the July 4 weekend. In August, a sixth bite was reported, this time in Rockaway Beach in Queens. This unusually high number follows a trend that started last summer, when a record number of eight shark bites were recorded on the island’s beaches.
Although statistics like this might spark or intensify negative feelings towards sharks, scientists emphasized that the chances of being bitten by these animals remain low compared to other risks that people expose themselves to in their daily lives.
“I wish people had a fear of driving as they do of sharks,” Chris Paparo, manager of the Marine Sciences Research Center at Stony Brook Southampton, said. “We’d all be safer.”
Paparo said that at the same time that people get panicked and upset about shark bites, they might get behind the wheel and make poor decisions such as texting friends, eating lunch, and drunk driving.
“These are all things that happen daily that are way riskier, but nobody is afraid of that,” he said.
Statistically, humans present a greater threat to sharks than sharks do to humans. Numbers from the International Fund for Animal Welfare show that while humans kill an estimate of 100 million sharks every year, fewer than 10 people die because of shark encounters in the same period.
Paparo explained that if sharks bit humans on purpose, such episodes would be more frequent. Speaking about Long Island specifically, he said that a lot of it can be a “numbers game,” considering that all the bites reported over the summer occurred on crowded beaches.
“For a lot more people in the water, there is a greater odd of something happening,” he explained.
Greg Metzger, chief field coordinator for the South Fork Natural History Museum (SOFO) Shark Research and Education Program, added to the idea that sharks were not purposefully attacking swimmers, explaining that if this was the case, there would be much more damage done to those bitten.
“It’s a lot more violent,” he said, referring to situations in which a shark attacks a fish with the intent of eating that fish.
Theories on this summer’s surge
Paparo and Metzger also agreed that it is impossible to determine what exactly led sharks to bite swimmers on Long Island this summer. They have theories, though.
The first one is related to a fish called Atlantic menhaden, also known as bunker. Paparo said that this is a fish many animals feed on that, in recent years, has been swimming very close to shore on Long Island. On the occasion that there is murky water and the shark is hunting these bay fish, the shark might mistakenly bite a human being. Paparo emphasized that these sharks most likely are not purposefully biting people as they would bite fish, but may just be investigating with their mouths instead.
Paparo also said that he, as a wildlife lecturer, looks out for bunker with his drone because “that’s where all the wildlife is.” This year, Paparo didn’t see any bunker close to shore until the July 4th weekend, which was when the first bites happened.
“That weekend they moved in close to shore, and we had three or four bites,” he said.
Despite the connection, Paparo made it clear that it is hard to point out one factor. He speculated that the combination of the bunker close to shore with the fact that July 4th is a busy beach weekend might be the reason why these encounters occurred.
Another theory is that Long Island is now a healthier environment for sharks and the fish that they eat than it was 40 and 50 years ago. Dumping toxins into the Hudson River isn’t allowed anymore, the air is cleaner, fisheries management has improved, and other proactive measures were taken to “clean” the island.
LI is a nursery for great whites
Sharks benefit from the cleaner environment. Metzger, who tags sharks and takes blood and measurements, said the research conducted by the shark program at SOFO confirmed that Long Island is a nursery area for great white sharks—making the island’s waters the only known nursery area for these sharks in the Atlantic. In addition, research from the Wildlife Conservation Society found out that the Great South Bay is a nursery area for sand tiger sharks. Metzger said that sharks encounter an abundance of food and a lack of predators on Long Island, which explains why this is a good area for a nursery.
“A lot of the sharks that we do catch are juvenile,” he said.
Metzger added that, while Long Island is important for sharks, sharks are important for Long Island. He said that because sharks feed on the animals in Long Island’s waters, they help to keep the populations “in check.”
“It helps to pick out the weak, the sick, the injured,” he explained.
In moments when a fear of sharks might be on the rise due to the recent bites, education about the importance of these animals is pivotal. This goes beyond Long Island.
Kayleigh Grant, owner and operator of an ocean safari business in Kona, Hawaii, dives with sharks almost every day. She documents her experiences on Instagram, where she has more than 300,000 followers, and TikTok, where she has more than 2 million followers.
“It’s been really amazing to be able to show people the beauty of the ocean and specifically sharks,” she said.
Grant’s objective with the pages is not only to educate, but also to portray sharks in a different way and potentially make people fall in love with them by creating an emotional attachment to them.
“In general, people only protect what they love,” she said.
She hopes that once having fallen in love with these animals, people will make different choices in their everyday lives regarding their diets, for example. She said that this won’t happen if people are afraid of them.
“If the ‘Jaws’ perception is continued, then they are not going to care about wanting to save them or protect them,” she said.
The only thing that Grant perhaps accumulates more than social followers are moments with sharks. The most memorable of them, she said, happened in 2019 when she swam for three hours with a great white shark that was consuming a dead sperm whale.
“It was beautiful, which probably people would think I’m crazy to say that,” she said.
She explained that moments like this wouldn’t be possible if sharks were “men-eating monsters.” About terminology, she said that she prefers the term “shark encounter” to describe situations in which a shark bites a human. After all, sharks are at the top of the food chain and the only way to completely avoid getting bitten by them is not going on the water.
“Them attacking something is just their role in the ecosystem,” she said.
Rafael Fonseca Cruvinel is a reporter with The SBU Media Group, part of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism’s Working Newsroom program for students and local media.