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Sharks. Our mascot or our killer?

By Jenna Melman, Staff Writer

Courtesy of steve.garner32

The shark is LIU’s cuddly, beloved mascot. However, new developments say that sharks may be more of a threat to Long Island’s safety than we might have suspected.

In the past century, New York State has had only 12 unprovoked shark bites on record. Now, in 2022, there were eight unprovoked shark bites reported.

Regional Director for the New York State Park System on Long Island George Gorman referred to the recent shark interactions as “extraordinarily unusual.” Summer is coming up, and some may want to reschedule beach plans.

To hone in on our Long Island’s shark developments, there were five shark bites in the course of two months in the summer of 2022, in June and July. There were six shark attacks off beaches on Long Island three weeks in July, so there had to be increasing patrols across beaches over the Fourth of July weekend. These included boats, helicopters and surveillance/research drones that were put in place on July 1, when these attacks were recognized as a serious threat by Nassau County executive Bruce Blakeman.

There was a drop in shark interactions on beaches worldwide in 2020, partly because of COVID-19 restrictions, and because the number of sharks in the world’s oceans has decreased. So, why do we now have this upsurge of active shark presence in Long Island? 

Though the number of sharks in the world’s oceans globally have decreased, conservation efforts have led to a rebound in shark populations in the northeastern U.S, such as New England, in which there has been a large increase in the seal population that has led to a surge of hungry great white sharks. There have been a number of kills on Cape Cod and Maine beach-goers by sharks in recent years.

The most significant reason for the Long Island shark activity is because baby sand tiger sharks have taken up residence in the Great South Bay between Long Island and Fire Island. The sharks use the sheltered bay as a nursery, and the majority of Long Island bites are likely from sand tiger sharks hunting bait fish in the surf zone. Interestingly enough, both climate change and conservation efforts are the culprit of this scenario.

Some believe that climate change is a harmful factor in Long Island’s increased shark activity because warm waters draw in sea creatures. As greenhouse gasses trap more energy from the sun, the oceans are absorbing more heat, resulting in an increase in sea surface temperatures and rising sea levels. The results of this phenomenon can be seen, for example, with manatees who swim right up to the beach in Puerto Rico, and with baby tiger sharks here in Long Island.

Experts say sharks are not intentionally targeting people, they are simply chasing the bunker fish near beaches. 

“When there’s a food source close to shore, they’ll come close to shore to feed on that,” Executive Director of The South Fork Natural History Museum Frank Quevedo said in a statement. “If people are in the water, they may interfere with or get in the way of shark feeding.”

“Bunker fish populations are thriving due to conservation efforts. Recent shark bites are likely mistakes,” according to Gorman. “The juvenile sand tigers will follow the fish, which in some cases leads to an uptick in encounters with people.” 

Even if a shark were to attack a human, it’s usually because they mistook the human for a fish, and they let go immediately. 

“We’re the animals with the brains, they’re the ones with the teeth, and we’re in their house, so it’s incumbent upon us to adjust our behavioral patterns and not to expect the animals, be they sharks, jellyfish or whatever, to adjust theirs,” Director of the Florida Program for Shark Research George Burgess said in a statement.

Francesco Ferretti said that if people learn to avoid being near shark food during feeding times, we become far less likely to become the food. Sharks do sometimes grab humans by mistake, and other times a bite may protect a shark’s space, like how dogs bark at intruders if they’re feeling territorial.

Despite the rise in shark bites in Long Island, the yearly average of unprovoked shark bites on humans globally has been 70, resulting in about five deaths. These worldwide numbers are small given the millions of humans that enter the water, and can be a comfort to Long Islanders during these treacherous times. Experts say that you have a better chance of dying from a bee sting, a dog or snake bite or lightning than from a shark bite. If you do come into contact with a shark, there are precautions you can take. 

When sharks see bright colors, they think they’ve spotted a fish, so keep that in mind when choosing a bathing suit. They are also stimulated when they see people moving around excessively, and simply giving off the scent of an animal’s sweat, spit or blood essence. They are attracted to that, being carnivores after all. Make sure to remove reflective jewelry and avoid areas where people are fishing, just to be safe. It is also a good idea to be with a group, as that discourages shark contact. 

If a shark does get near you, maintain eye contact with it, slowly move away and if possible, exit the water. If the shark tries to bite you, hit it in the eyes and gills, which are sensitive areas that can be hurt regardless of personal strength. Hit the shark on the snout and push away. Keep in mind water-resistance weakens your punch.

To put it in perspective, humans kill an average of 100 million sharks across the world annually. Sharks are important predators in the marine world, with a reputation as bloodthirsty killing machines. But sharks are being snubbed. Sharks are not unique in consuming animals. For example, humans are predators, eating cattle, pigs, chickens, fish and other creatures. We may be the real killers to be frightened of. As apex (top) and meso (mid-level) predators, sharks limit the populations of the animals they eat. This maintains the balance of nature. To maintain your spot on the top of the food chain, be careful on Long Island beaches this summer.

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