If there is a creature of the moment in New York City right now, even more than the French bulldog, it’s the shark. In the past three weeks, there have been six shark attacks on Long Island, prompting extensive news coverage and stress for swimmers and surfers. (No one was seriously injured.) On Monday, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that she was directing state agencies to step up drone surveillance and lifeguard staffing at state beaches. Just a day later, all of the Rockaway beaches closed after multiple sightings, including one caught on video.
Shark bites are still extremely rare, and deaths are even rarer. Your chance of dying in a shark-related fatality is one in 4.3 million, whereas your chance of dying in a car is one in 84. So what’s going on — is this just hyped-up business as usual? Are there more sharks because of successful conservation efforts (good) or because of warmer waters brought on by climate change (bad)? Or are sharks, older than dinosaurs, simply reclaiming their rightful territory? I called up 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 water around New York now?
Sharks have always been here — that’s the bottom line. We were out on Sunday, and we tagged seven sharks in a few hours. The species that are making headlines are the sandbar shark, the dusky shark, and the sand-tiger shark. From the ’50s to the ’70s, they were fished unregulated, and they really can’t handle fishing pressure; if you catch one, that’s a big hit to population. They were almost wiped out. Due to better protections — those are prohibited species; you can’t even target them — the population came back. We also managed bunker fish with the idea that if we put more food in the ocean, some of those species would rebound on their own. It was extremely successful: The bunker made a return and then so did sharks, bluefin tunas, whales, and dolphins. And we cleaned up our waters.
Shark populations around the world in general are on the 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 just 73 unprovoked attacks worldwide. There are 4,000 drownings just in the U.S. every year, but people still go swimming. It’s scary, and nobody wants to be the 74th person on that list — I get that. But with the fear, you get people who are talking about how we need to cull sharks.
If we’re seeing more sharks because of successful conservation efforts, how much does warming water matter? How much optimism or dread am I supposed to feel?
There is an effect with sharks and climate change, but it’s not a numbers thing. It doesn’t mean more sharks; it means different sharks. We’re seeing spinner sharks and blacktip sharks more frequently 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 be running with this news. Do you watch that stuff?
I purposely got rid of cable so I don’t have to watch the news. Unfortunately, I have watched some of it, and the media is often asking people, “Are you going to go swimming again?” It seems like, more times than not, they wanna show the fear, that people are afraid of swimming, instead of talking about what’s going on and giving people some facts to avoid sharks.
What are some of those facts?
There are a few things you can do to lessen your chance. Don’t swim at dawn and dusk, when they tend to feed. Don’t swim in a school of bunker. It’s funny, but I’ve seen people paddling through schools of bunker — the chances are you won’t get bit, but why would you do that? Don’t swim when the water is really dark and murky. The surfer who got bit — I was at the beach that morning (not that specific beach but another one), and the water was like chocolate milk. Swim in lifeguarded areas.
If you’re in the ocean, there’s a very good chance there’s a shark near you. There’s no smelling them or seeing them; they’re silent and slick. People will say, “I’m swimming in Long Island Sound because there are no sharks.” There are sharks there, too. You don’t have people getting bit simply because there are fewer people. It’s not like Jones Beach.
If they wanted to eat us, they’d be attacking a lot more. Sharks aren’t mindless machines that eat people. The species I mentioned can’t eat you; they don’t have jaw structure or teeth for breaking bones.
What do you make of the governor’s surveillance efforts?
They are gonna find sharks. The beaches have closed a lot more, not because there’s more sharks but because we’re looking more. Two or three years ago, we weren’t patrolling; lifeguards weren’t looking. I guarantee beaches will be closed more frequently, and that’s going to persist all summer.
Do you think it’s the right move, then, to close the beaches?
Nobody wants to be the mayor from Jaws. I don’t want to relive that scene where it’s the Fourth of July weekend, we need the beaches open, and then someone gets bit. I think it’s wise, if they’re going to be looking and seeing them, to close the beach and help keep people calm.
Did you see the video of two guys on Long Island finding a beached shark and then dragging it back into the water by its tail?
It looked like a sandbar shark or a dusky. It seems most definitely fished, which is completely illegal — they don’t just wash up — but they get caught all the time. That’s part of the problem if 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 you by your pinkie toe. You’re separating their backbone, and dry sand gets into their gills. That’s when someone gets bit: You’re pulling them by the tail, but they can spin. If someone’s in water, now it’s a pissed-off shark that’s trying to get away, and it might swim into a swimmer.
In terms of being New York creatures of the moment, are sharks the new rats?
No, because rats play no role. They’re an invasive species that are not even supposed to be here. If we could eradicate rats from New York City or the continent, we would help wildlife. If we eradicate sharks, we would doom ourselves. Rats disappearing is only a positive.
So the sharks really are good news.
Yes. It shows a clean environment. Would you want to go swimming in the Gowanus Canal? You’re not going to be bit by a shark. I can guarantee that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.