MONTAUK, NY — With a number of shark sightings closing beaches on Long Island recently — and with a great white shark headed toward Long Island from New Jersey on Tuesday —residents have been wondering if it’s safe to go in the water.
Chris Fischer, founder of the not-for-profit Ocearch research organization, said a Montauk shark “nursery” discovered in 2016 has seen a “steady increase” in its population of white sharks.
Female sharks tend to head to Montauk in the late spring and early summer to drop off their pups and then depart; right now, there are a “bunch of baby shark pups” on the South Shore that are about a month old, “under the menhaden, chasing squid and mackerel around,” he said.
There is also a populations of baby white sharks from one to three years old, who are in the Montauk area and will head north in the coming weeks, Fischer said.
“All indications are that we’re doing quite well in the nursery,” Fischer said. He added that the growth in the white shark population is important for commercial and recreational fisheries and “so our grandchildren can eat fresh fish in the future. All those baby white sharks are our future balance keepers,” he said.
And, Fischer said, the Ocearch tracker indicates that a great white shark, “Miss May,” named after Mayport, the future home of Ocearch in Jacksonville, is far off the coast of Atlantic City.
“She’s northbound and heading our way,” he said. “If she repeats her migratory path, she should be passing Montauk in the coming days.”
After her foray to the Hamptons, Miss May will head up to Cape Cod, where she will spend the later part of the summer, Fischer said.
The white sharks, he said, keep the seal from depleting fish stock in area waters. Even one great white shark in the water can keep seals on the beach and prevent them eating all the other types of fish in the water, he said.
Having even the one shark in the area can mean seals will eat a quarter of what they normally would, Fischer said. “Without that shark, there are hundreds of seals that can ‘over-forage’ and wipe out cod, mackerel, and lobster,” he said. “Baby white sharks are moving up the entire South Shore of Long Island” and keeping the waters balanced, he said.
Don’t go swimming “dressed like shark food,” expert says
“People have this fear of sharks,” Fischer said. “They look out and see a little 4 or 5-foot shark, eating something the size of menhaden or a small squid or mackerel — it’s not something you need to be too worried about.”
It’s not until sharks are much older and about 10 to 12-feet long that they begin to target larger prey such as seals, he said.
Common sense in the water is key, Fischer said: “Don’t go swimming looking like a seal,” he said. “But people do that every day. They put on wetsuits, dressed up like shark food, when they are going swimming with real shark food. Those are the kinds of things you want to avoid.”
Even “dressed up like shark food,” most of the time, sharks can tell the difference between a human and a seal, Fischer said.
Another tip, he said, is not to go swimming if there is a good amount of activity, such as birds swooping down to feed on bait, with seals in the area. “Don’t swim out in the middle of that. The food chain is happening and if there is a large white shark in the area, it will be there, balancing the system,” Fischer said. “Just think about it as if you were going for hike in the forest and you know mountain lions were tracking deer. You would probably walk in the opposite direction; you wouldn’t walk into the middle of that. Humans seem not to apply the same type of logic in the ocean as we do in the forest. Once your out into the waves, deep into the ocean, you’re deep into the wilderness and anything can happen. It’s not a swimming pool.”
Fischer added: “Be practical, look at what’s going on. Make good, safe decisions, use common sense — and enjoy the ocean.”
Montauk shark nursery sparks uptick in population
Sharks have been making an appearance in East End waters in recent years.
Christopher Paparo, manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s marine sciences center, said at one time, sharks were very common in area waters. “They have been heavily fished and their numbers have dropped. Due to regulations and better environmental conditions, we have seen some species returning to where they once roamed.”
Paparo said a sandbar, or brown, shark was even spotted in shallow waters off the Mattituck coast last summer. “It should also be pointed out, that these are prohibited species and even targeting them is against the law,” he said.
It’s not the first time a shark has been spotted in the Long Island Sound. A nearly 10-foot, 500-pound great white shark spotted in the Long Island Sound in May, 2019, then headed to the Hamptons.
According to Fischer, @GWSharkCabot was then spotted off the coast southwest of Montauk.
The fact that a great white was found in the Long Island Sound for the first time “is a great sign,” Fischer said. “It means there’s a lot of life, and that the water quality is good.”
Sharks, Fischer has long maintained, are “great balance keepers.” The fact that they have been proliferating in recent years, with a great white shark nursery found off the coast of Montauk, indicates that water quality is improving.
“Sharks don’t go where the conditions aren’t good,” Fischer said. “It’s a great sign for the region and it’s a valuable tribute to the people who have been working so hard for the last decade to clean up the Long Island Sound.”
With sharks moving from North Carolina and Florida during recent days and weeks, East End residents will be getting “fly bys” as sharks pass through area waters, Fischer said.
According to Ocearch, which has led expeditions off Montauk to tag sharks found in a nursery in the Atlantic Ocean in recent years, in 2016, great white shark researchers discovered the first North Atlantic nursery for the fearsome predator in the waters off Montauk — explaining the recent surge in great white sharks around nearby Cape Cod.
In 2016, the leading shark research team said it suspected Long Island might be a breeding ground for great whites and launched a tagging expedition to be able to determine potential birthing sites. The Ocearch team said it tracked nine infant great whites to the nursery, located a few miles off Montauk.
There has been a surge of great white sightings off Cape Cod in recent years — researchers say adults feed on seals around the Cape and return to Montauk, where adolescents stay until they reach adulthood at the age of 20. Great whites can live up to 70 years old; they can grow up to 25 feet long and weigh 5,000 pounds.
“This is a historical moment and the first step in revealing the great white shark pupping ground,” Fischer said in a statement at the time the nursery was discovered. “It’s this kind of scientific data that will help us collectively make more informed decisions about how to protect this incredible species.”
Fischer said the discovery could lead to restrictions on human activity around the nursery in an effort to protect the sharks.
But the news isn’t reason to panic: Although a woman apparently died of a shark attack in Maine on Monday, according to a report by CNN.com, shark attacks on humans are extremely rare — the odds are about one in 12 million. Most shark attack victims survive; bites on humans by sharks are normally exploratory. Worldwide, 200,000 sharks are killed per day; in contrast, about 10 to 12 human lives are lost yearly as a result of shark attacks, researchers told Patch.
Sharks, experts agree, are far less of a danger to people than mankind is to sharks.
“You have more risk of dying by a defective toaster or driving a car than a shark attack, but it’s perception,” OCEARCH Chief Operating Officer Fernanda Ubatuba has told Patch.
Instead, sharks are victims: Sharks are at great risk worldwide due to an industry in Asia and other areas that rely heavily on shark skinning. “It’s wiping out our oceans completely,” she said.
As apex predators of the ocean, sharks are critical to maintaining healthy ocean systems.
“The current problem we face in shark conservation is that we do not have the necessary data to understand the migratory patterns of our ocean’s apex predators, mating and birth sites — the locations we need to protect,” a Kickstarter site for Ocearch said.
The breeding sites “are being discovered for the first time,” Ubatuba said. “It’s necessary to judge at least two breeding sites to determine what they have in common and what draws the sharks there,” she added.
Ubatuba said the goal is to connect people from New York to the ocean, to make them aware of what’s going on in Montauk, Southampton and across Long Island, “to bring more data so we can really understand what is going on in the waters of New York.”
It’s important to replace “fear with facts,” Ubatuba said. By using the organization’s shark tracker, beach-goers can use that information to “make the best judgment when to go to beach and when to avoid it.”
Why Long Island is fertile ground for sharks
Long Island is a good place for breeding because, as in other areas of the world where great white sharks breed, the topography includes protected areas, with its shape including bays, said Ubatuba. In addition, food resources and fish bring the sharks “to a safe region to drop their pups,” she added.
It’s important to determine birthing sites to keep them safe; sharks do not become sexually mature until they are 20 years old. “It takes a long time,” she said.
“We’re not on the menu”
Joe Yaiullo, curator and co-founder of the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center, said there are other precautions swimmers can take, such as not going into the water at dawn or dusk when bait fish, such as bunker, are being fed upon.
“Avoiding that situation is always wise,” he said.
But, for the most part, humans aren’t the first choice for shark fare, he said. “We’re not on the menu. If we were, sharks would just be lining up off of Jones Beach, Robert Moses and the Hamptons, just waiting for us to go in. But they’re not,” Yaiuloo said. “We’re large, obnoxious, bony creatures in the water.”
Sharks, Yaiullo said, don’t have fingers to feel; instead, they “mouth” things, and many times, a shark attack is “just them being inquisitive, asking, ‘Is this something I want to eat?’ Most shark attacks are not a person getting eaten, it’s usually a bite, and the shark swims off, leaving the person intact for the most part.”
Deaths from shark attacks are not caused by people being consumed by sharks, he said; instead, victims often bleed out. “If it’s a big shark, you might lose a limb but again, sharks eat fish, and seals, that don’t have big bones,” he said.
Shark sightings are actually a good thing, he said. “With them being the apex of the food chain, if they’re here, it’s a good thing for humans,” Yaiullo explained. “People shouldn’t think that more sharks in the water mean they’re going to be attacked. That’s not the case at all.”
Sharks are a sign of a healthy ecosystem with plentiful fish, clean water and less pollution, an indicator that the United States is doing a good job of managing its fisheries, he said.
He agreed sharks are at risk worldwide. “It’s important to spread a conservation message,” Yaiullo said. “Not eating shark fin soup, or engaging in all these bad practices. We humans kill a hundred million sharks every year, for shark teeth and jaws. We’re doing much more damage to them than they are to us. And if they are doing well, we are doing well.”
On the East End, Mike Bottini, former chair of the Surfrider Foundation of Eastern Long Island, who still sits on the advisory committee, said locally, Greg Metzger, renowned shark expert, as well as Merry Camhi, director of WCS’s New York Seascape, a joint program of the New York Aquarium and the Global Marine Program, have done cutting-edge research and spoken at the Long Island Natural History Conference.
One reason for the increase in sharks could be the explosion of the gray seal population after the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and removal of bounty on seals in the 1970s, he said. The gray seals are a major source of food for great white sharks, he said.
Bottini, a naturalist, is also the head lifeguard at East Hampton’s Main Beach; he started lifeguarding in the 1970s at Jones Beach and said shark sightings were relatively non-existent. “We rarely, I mean never, saw a shark,” he said.
But despite the reality that the chance of a shark attack is relatively nil, Bottini said when he was working at Jones Beach and “Jaws” had just come out, “Every other person sitting on the beach that summer had that book. It spooked a lot of people, including veteran lifeguards. They’re out of sight, so you think, ‘Maybe they’re in there. How do I know?’ It’s a little spooky.”
And that’s exactly why shark trackers have taken some of the fear out of the shark experience.
In fact, some sharks have become veritable celebrities.
Mary Lee, the famous 16-foot, 3,400-pound great white shark, made headlines when she was found to be lurking off the Long Island coast, headed toward Fire Island, and then East Hampton.
Sadly, Mary Lou has not been seen since 2017, when she last pinged off the Jersey Shore coast.
Ocearch, like other not-for-profits, have been dealt a heavy blow due to the coronavirus and are short a few hundred thousand dollars for the year, Fischer said. Despite the challenges, teams will head to Massachusetts and later, Nova Scotia this year. “This work is so important to the public and to the future balance of the ocean,” he said. “We are going to grind it out. We will find a way.”
To donate to Ocearch, click here.
This article originally appeared on the Montauk Patch