Photo: Karen Doody/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images
If there’s one creature of the moment in New York right now, even more than the French bulldog, it’s the shark. Over the past three weeks, there have been six shark attacks on Long Island, causing significant media coverage and stress for swimmers and surfers. (No one was seriously injured.) On Monday, Governor Kathy Hochul announcement that it was directing state agencies to step up drone surveillance and staffing of lifeguards at beaches across the state. Just a day later, all beaches in Rockaway closed after multiple sightingsincluding an caught on video.
Shark bites are still extremely rare, and deaths are even rarer. Your chance of dying in a fatal shark-related crash is 1 in 4.3 million, while your risk of dying in a car is 1 in 84. So what’s going on? Are there more sharks because of successful conservation efforts (good) or because of warmer waters caused by climate change (bad)? Or are the sharks, older than the dinosaurs, simply reclaiming their rightful territory? I called Christopher Paparo, a shark expert from Long Island and the director of a marine lab at Stony Brook University.
Are there really more sharks in the waters around New York now?
Sharks have always been there – that’s the main thing. We were out on Sunday and tagged seven sharks in a few hours. The species making the headlines are the gray shark, the dusky shark and the sand tiger shark. From the 1950s to the 1970s they were fished without regulation and they really can’t handle the fishing pressure; if you catch one, it’s a big blow for the population. They were almost wiped out. Due to better protections – they are prohibited species; you can’t even target them — the population has returned. We have also succeeded bunker fish with the idea that if we put more food in the ocean, some of these species would bounce back on their own. It was extremely successful: The bunker made a comeback, then sharks, bluefin tuna, whales and dolphins. And we cleaned up our waters.
Shark populations around the world are generally in 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 only 73 unprovoked attacks worldwide. There are 4,000 drownings in the United States alone each year, but people still go swimming. It’s scary, and no one wants to be the 74th person on this list – I get it. But with fear you get people talking about how we need to eliminate sharks.
If we see more sharks through successful conservation efforts, how important is warming the water? How optimistic or dreadful am I supposed to feel?
There is an effect with sharks and climate change, but it’s not about numbers. That doesn’t mean more sharks; it means different sharks. We see spinner sharks and blacktip sharks more frequently in our waters. And as the ocean gets warmer, some of our local species aren’t happy, and they’re going to move north.
News 12 seems to work with this news. Do you watch this stuff?
I purposely got rid of cable so I wouldn’t have to watch the news. Unfortunately, I watched a few of them, and the media often asks people, “Are you going to start swimming again?” It seems that more often than not they want to show fear, that people are afraid to swim, instead of talking about what’s going on and giving people facts to avoid sharks.
What are some of these facts?
There are a few things you can do to reduce your chances. Do not swim at dawn and dusk, when they tend to feed. Do not swim in a bunker bench. It’s funny, but I’ve seen people paddling in bunker benches – chances are you won’t get bitten, but why would you? Don’t swim when the water is really dark and murky. The surfer who got bitten – I was at the beach that morning (not this particular beach but another one), and the water was like chocolate milk. Swimming in supervised areas.
If you’re in the ocean, chances are there’s a shark near you. There is no feeling them or seeing them; they are quiet and smooth. People will say, “I swim in Long Island Sound because there are no sharks. There are also sharks. You don’t have people getting bitten just 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 stupid machines that eat people. The species 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 will find sharks. The beaches have closed a lot more, not because there are more sharks but because we are looking for more. Two or three years ago, we weren’t patrolling; the lifeguards were not watching. I guarantee you that the beaches will be closed more frequently, and this will persist all summer.
Do you think it’s the right decision, then, to close the beaches?
No one wants to be mayor of Jaws. I don’t want to relive that scene where it’s the 4th of July weekend, we need the beaches open, and then someone gets bitten. I think it’s wise, if they’re going to look at them and see them, to close the beach and help keep people calm.
Did you see the video of two guys on Long Island find a stranded shark then bring it back into the water by its tail?
It looked like a sandbar shark or a dusky one. It most definitely looks fished which is completely illegal – they don’t just wash – but they get caught all the time. It’s part of the problem if you fish these sharks and then catch them and pull them out of the water. If you drag them by the tail, it’s like dragging yourself by your little toe. You separate their backbones and dry sand enters their gills. This is where someone gets bitten: you pull him by the tail, but he can spin. If someone is in the water, it’s now an angry shark trying to get away, and it might swim into a swimmer.
As New York creatures of the moment, are sharks the new rats?
No, because the rats play no role. It’s an invasive species that’s not even supposed to be here. If we could eradicate rats from New York or the mainland, we would be helping wildlife. If we eradicated the sharks, we would doom ourselves. The disappearance of the rats is only positive.
So sharks are really good news.
Yes. It shows a clean environment. Would you like to go swimming in the Gowanus Channel? You’re not going to get bitten by a shark. I can guarantee it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity..