In most past summers, New York beaches were, at their worst, crowded, dirty, and loud. Now, however, beachgoers must contend with something slightly more unsettling: sharks.
Along the south shore of Long Island, on some of New York’s most popular beaches, shark attacks appear to be on the rise. Last month, over the long July Fourth weekend, several people reported being bitten, including two 15-year-olds. And just this week, a 65-year-old woman was seriously injured by a shark bite at Rockaway Beach in New York City. None of these bites were fatal.
These reports follow a record of eight confirmed shark bites last summer, some of which may have been caused by sand tiger sharks. Prior to 2022, no year in at least the last three decades had more than two confirmed shark bites in New York, according to data shared with Vox from the University of Florida, which compiles statistics on shark attacks.
Shark bites are, of course, frightening, but there’s actually a bit of good news behind the recent spate of attacks. A rise in bites typically points to a rise in sharks, and a rise in sharks indicates that the marine habitat is full of fish, i.e., shark food.
“Sharks are a sign of a healthy ecosystem,” said Chris Paparo, a shark expert at Stony Brook University in Long Island. “I look at that as a sign of successful conservation.”
Globally, the abundance of sharks and rays has declined by more than 70 percent in the last 50 years, largely due to industrial fishing. Fishing vessels not only kill sharks directly — by harvesting them or catching them accidentally — but also by depleting their food supply.
The US has tried to reverse this trend along the Eastern Seaboard. Over the last few decades, fisheries have adopted regulations designed to safeguard declining populations of sharks and their prey. New York, meanwhile, has cleaned up some of its rivers that flow into the ocean, reducing the amount of dirty water that reaches coastal seas.
At least some of these efforts appear to be working.
“Are there more sharks now than there were five or 10 years ago? Absolutely,” said Tobey Curtis, a fishery management specialist at NOAA Fisheries, a government organization that oversees fishing in the US. “We’ve been managing and conserving shark populations since 1993.”
So there are more sharks by design, and scientists want this trend to continue. The challenge ahead is educating the public about how to live with them.
Sharks don’t want a taste of human flesh. They’re trying to catch fish.
This may bring you some discomfort, but: The waters of coastal New York are very much shark habitat. In fact, the south shore of Long Island is a nursery for a variety of marine species including great white sharks. This is where they grow up.
Fortunately for us, these animals typically don’t want to eat people. The most common sharks in Long Island are dusky sharks, sandbar sharks, and sand tiger sharks (which are, confusingly, different than tiger sharks) and their diet is largely fish. Sand tiger sharks, for example, will go after schools of Atlantic menhaden (a.k.a. bunker), sleek sliver fish that have a distinct black dot behind their gills. Frightening as they may appear, the teeth of a sand tiger shark are not designed for ripping through human flesh.
Human bites are almost always accidental: A shark might confuse a person for marine life or simply snag them accidentally while trying to chomp down on some fish. Sharks hunt using organs on their face that sense electrical signals, relying only partially on smell and vision. Sometimes rowdy humans can mimic the signal emitted by schools of bunker, according to Gavin Naylor, a shark researcher at the University of Florida.
So that’s how bites can happen. The next question is: Why do they seem to be happening more often in New York?
There are more sharks — and more shark food — in the water. Good.
Sharks make headlines when they accidentally bite a single human. Severe human-caused declines of sharks draw far less attention.
Since the mid-20th century, fishing has utterly decimated populations of sharks. Nearly one-third of shark species are threatened with extinction worldwide, and that number is much higher for those that live in coral reefs and the open ocean. Globally, the sand tiger shark — which has been linked to bites in New York — is critically endangered, meaning it’s at imminent risk of extinction.
This is a problem for the oceans and for us. Like wolves that eat deer, sharks are apex predators that manage populations of prey, such as smaller fish and crustaceans. Those prey graze on seagrass and chow down on coral. If they aren’t being hunted by sharks, those ecosystems could suffer. “The loss of sharks has led to the decline in coral reefs, seagrass beds, and the loss of commercial fisheries,” according to the nonprofit marine conservation organization Oceana.
Yet at least along the East Coast, the populations of many sharks — which were once freefalling due to commercial fishing — are recovering.
In 1993, NOAA Fisheries introduced a regulation to protect sharks in the Atlantic Ocean, from Maine to Texas. Among its many provisions, the regulation restricted the kinds of gear fishermen can use and what species of sharks they can harvest. One recent analysis suggests that this management plan worked: All 11 species that the authors studied, from white sharks to great hammerheads, either increased or stabilized after 1993.
“Along the Atlantic coast, we’ve actually rebuilt or are in the process of rebuilding a lot of shark populations,” Curtis said, “including a lot of the sharks common off Long Island.”
It’s not only sharks that are recovering along the East Coast but some of the fish they eat, including bunker.
Bunker populations have followed a similar trend as sharks: In past decades they were in decline due to overfishing, but a number of regulations have revived their populations. In 2019, New York passed a bill that restricts menhaden fishing in state waters. The fish are also managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an organization that oversees fisheries along the eastern seaboard.
“Our Atlantic menhaden populations have been doing well over the last few years near shore,” Chris Scott, a marine biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), said at a press briefing last year. “This is bringing in predators such as striped bass, tuna, seals, dolphins, whales, and of course, sharks. It’s a really positive sign that we’re seeing these animals in our waters.”
While bunker are more abundant today, it’s still not clear why they’re schooling so close to shore, scientists say. That’s ultimately what draws in the sharks. Rising ocean temperatures or cleaner water may affect their distribution, but “the exact cause is unknown,” a DEC spokesperson told Vox.
4 simple rules to follow to avoid a shark bite
Even if you regularly swim at Rockaway or Long Island beaches, you are almost certainly not going to be bitten by a shark. As you might imagine, you are far more likely to die in a car accident than even see a shark in New York, let alone be injured by one. (Last year, 255 people died in traffic incidents, compared to just eight confirmed shark bites.)
“The disconnect that sometimes drives me nuts is that we do so many things in our daily lives that are so much more dangerous than going swimming in the ocean,” Paparo said, and yet so many people are terrified of sharks.
If you want to further shrink the chance of a shark encounter, here’s what Paparo and other experts suggest:
- Avoid swimming in areas where you see lots of fish or seals, or where people are actively fishing. Sharks might confuse you for prey.
- Don’t swim at dusk or dawn, or at night. That’s when sharks are most likely to be hunting.
- Try to avoid swimming in murky water. Sharks will have a harder time telling you apart from a fish. (They rely on their eyes to an extent.)
- Only swim when there’s a lifeguard on duty. Lifeguards are trained to spot marine animals and communicate the risk to swimmers.
Most of all, remember that having sharks around is a rare victory for conservation and — as we learn to live with them — human communities. These animals help sustain the ecosystems that support us all.
Update, August 8, 3 pm ET: This story was originally published on July 12 and has been updated to include a further shark incident.