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Jul 8, 2014 3:21 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Expert: White Shark Sightings Are Not A Sign Of Threat

Jul 8, 2014 6:49 PM

Peter Benchley’s famous novel “Jaws,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, was set in a small fictional village described as being approximately where Wainscott and Sagaponack are today. But the South Fork has never been a place where white sharks, or “great whites,” as they are commonly called, have posed much of a threat to swimmers, and there has never been a documented white shark attack off Long Island’s shores.

Nonetheless, media attention in the last week has swirled around speculation of white sharks prowling New York’s waters, and the attendant drama such discussions typically spark—thanks to the 1975 movie made from Mr. Benchley’s book.

The spotlight was intensified by a coincidence: the publication of a scientific study documenting an increase in white shark populations in the northern Atlantic, and a handful of sightings of white sharks in the last couple weeks by fishermen from Long Island ports.

On at least two, possibly three, days last week fishermen reported catching a small white shark—babies, weighing about 80 pounds—within sight of shore off the Rockaways, setting off a series of news reports on the matter. Within a couple of days, New York City news outlets picked up on a video posted by fishermen of a very large white shark swimming past their boat, some 35 miles offshore. There have been two unconfirmed sightings of small white sharks off Montauk as well.

If shark attacks were on people’s minds, it didn’t help when a long-distance ocean swimmer was attacked by an estimated 7-foot juvenile white shark at Manhattan Beach in California over the weekend. The victim suffered puncture wounds along the right side of his chest.

Two weeks ago, a study by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the population of white sharks in the northwestern Atlantic—comprising all of the Atlantic north of the Caribbean, including the Gulf of Mexico and the waters east of the Bahamas—are starting to show some signs of recovery from steep declines due to overfishing in the 1970s and 1980s.

The study estimated that as many as 5,000 white sharks might live in the western North Atlantic now. But their numbers are still well down from historical highs.

“It should not be a surprise to anyone if white sharks have been seen here—white sharks have always been here,” said Damien Chapman, Ph.D., a marine biology professor at the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “But there’s nothing here with respect to public safety issues. We don’t need to suddenly worry about white shark attacks.

“Historically, before the population declines, this has not been a hot spot for shark attacks,” he continued. “Having said that, there are a lot more people using the water now, so you never know. But it’s likely that this is not a place where white sharks come close enough to shore.”

Dr. Chapman pointed out that white sharks are commonly sighted near shore off Cape Cod, and their presence has caused beach closures on several occasions in recent years. He noted that there is some scientific evidence that the waters of the New York Bight—the slight indentation along the coast that extends from Cape May Inlet in New Jersey to Montauk Point—might be a nursery for white sharks, a place where pregnant females come to give birth.

If such is the case, he said, small whites like the one caught off the Rockaways could be more common locally, and might even come close to shore when drawn in by schools of small fish. But their larger mothers, who feed on larger prey, like seals, would likely leave the area soon after giving birth.

Increasing seal populations in recent years have raised fears of drawing sharks closer to shore, but the mammals have typically left local waters by summer, when the white shark migration patterns generally bring them to the area.

Several years ago, a pound trap fisherman in Gardiners Bay caught a juvenile white shark—still an imposing 8 feet in length—in a trap just a few yards off East Hampton beaches. There have been several instances of white sharks swimming close to local beaches, but those cases, as Dr. Chapman notes, were mostly likely anomalous occurrences of random sharks, not signs of a proclivity for the species to roam local inshore waters.

“Within populations of fish, you always have individuals who do something different,” Dr. Chapman said. “This year, we’re aware that some of the white sharks are a bit farther south than they have been in the past, and there’s some in the Gulf of Mexico, which you wouldn’t expect. So, they can pop up anywhere.”

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It's a sign that sharks LIVE IN THE WATER !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I'll be surprised when I see one at King Kullen .....Leave these majestic creatures be !
By Biba (564), East Hampton on Jul 12, 14 8:24 AM
1 member liked this comment
A good rule of thumb--If you're out in the water--and you hear low cello music
HEAD TO SHORE--QUICK !!
By aging hipster (201), Southampton on Jul 13, 14 8:30 AM
1 member liked this comment
I think philathome should swim in the ocean more, that is if he can break away from his keyboard.
By dnice (2346), Hampton Bays on Jul 13, 14 2:19 PM
Now this is my type of news story!! hehehe :D
Must mean Shark Week is coming soon!
By Jaws (244), Amity Island on Jul 14, 14 12:01 AM
Not a Threat? That's what they said on Amity Island.
By nazznazz (276), east hampton on Jul 14, 14 3:29 PM
1 member liked this comment
Did you know the Novel by Peter Benchly was published 40 years ago (1974) and the movie came out in theaters 39 years ago (1975) this month. 40th anniversary next year! How time flies!
Jul 17, 14 11:21 PM appended by Jaws
Forgot to name the Novel "JAWS" and the movie "JAWS". I assumed you know what I was referring to ;)
By Jaws (244), Amity Island on Jul 17, 14 11:21 PM
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