Before 2022, there were only 12 unprovoked bites in New York’s history, including four from the past decade, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. But this month, there were five nonfatal shark attacks on Long Island within two weeks.
While the area is seeing an increase in bites, it’s not yet a trend, according to researchers at the International Shark Attack File.
The chance of being fatally attacked by a shark remains less than 1 in 4 million, according to the International Shark Attack File.
Still, experts say a combination of conservation efforts and climate change may have something to do with the increase in attacks in New York.
Robert Hueter, chief scientist at shark data organization OCEARCH, tells CNN he believes conservation success is the single most important factor contributing to the recent cluster of shark bites.
Conservation efforts have brought back the “once overfished” baitfish that sharks feed on, Hueter says.
“When those schools go to the beach, the sharks go with them,” he said.
Humans have essentially become accustomed to seeing a depleted shark population in recent decades, Hueter says.
“The sharks have always been there to some extent, but their numbers were much lower than they are now because of overfishing in the last 30-40 years,” he said. “Through concerted fisheries management and fishing efforts, sharks are being rebuilt, so numbers are going up again.”
In addition, sharks may migrate north as climate change and rising sea temperatures push their prey north in search of cooler waters. Climate change “plays a role, but is not the biggest driver” of shark bites right now, Hueter says.
Scorching heat this summer means there are more people — and sharks — on the beach.
“The land is warmer than ever. And that will drive more people to the water than ever before, which will only increase the chances of someone being accidentally bitten,” said Christopher Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University Lang. beach.
And beach season for New Yorkers coincides with the time when most shark species head north for cooler waters.
“Most of these migratory animals will approach the northernmost part of their range, if not,” Hueter said. “It’s also a time when young sharks born in the spring or early summer are quite abundant in coastal waters, in places like New York.”
Where are shark attacks occurring and increasing?
While global shark attacks have steadily increased over the past 30 years, numbers appear to be leveling off.
Last year, there were 73 confirmed unprovoked shark attack cases worldwide, including 47 in the United States, which has the most documented unprovoked bites in the world, according to the International Shark Attack File.
While the numbers represent an increase from 2020, when fewer people went to the beach during the pandemic, they are still in line with the most recent five-year average of 72 incidents per year.
And the world is on track for another “very normal shark bite year,” with about 70 to 80 unprovoked attacks expected, according to Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida shark research program at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Most of the documented shark attacks in the US take place in Florida.
In 2021, there were 28 documented bites in Florida, followed by six in Hawaii, three in California, four in South Carolina, three in North Carolina, two in Georgia and one in Maryland.
Most Florida bites occur on the Atlantic coast of the state. Hueter attributes this to the Gulf Stream’s proximity to the coast, significant waves, congestion from surfers and swimmers, and the area’s large schools of sharks.
“There are sometimes huge collections of animals running around the surf,” Hueter said. “When people are in the water, they’re all pushed close to shore. That’s when they get bitten.”
By comparison, on the Gulf of Florida coast, sharks have much more territory to “spread” and there are fewer encounters between humans and sharks, Hueter says.
The West Coast has seen nearly 100 attacks in the past 30 years.
Why do sharks attack?
Many attacks are “identity swapping incidents,” which take place under conditions of poor water visibility, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“Humans are bitten, but rarely consumed, and that tells us we’re not on the shark’s menu,” Lowe said.
Hueter says many of these bites occur when people swim in or near large schools of prey fish. Small sharks feeding on the schools of fish will “test” a person’s hand or foot, but usually release quickly.
“Those incidents are real bites, not attacks where the animal tries to cause lethal damage,” Hueter said.
In addition, sharks can bite because they feel threatened and are only trying to defend themselves.
“If you get in their way, or they swim through it, because they’re moving fast, the defensive response on their part is to bite,” Hueter said. “Especially something bigger than them.”
While “shark attack” may conjure up images of the huge great white shark from “Jaws,” Hueter points out that there are hundreds of species of sharks, “all completely different from each other.”
“Most of these are relatively small,” he said.
In New York’s waters, many previous bites involved young sand tiger sharks. There is a sand tiger shark nursery at Fire Island along the south shore of Long Island.
“There is reason to believe that young people are more likely to bite because they are less experienced and feel more threatened because they are smaller,” Hueter said. “Especially because the bites at Long Island were not particularly severe, this indicates it is a smaller animal.”
To avoid shark bites, beachgoers should avoid swimming between dusk and dawn, swimming where people fish, swimming alone, and swimming around large schools of fish, Hueter says.
Hueter says as our oceans become healthier, beachgoers may have to adapt to more sharks in the water.
“It’s just a matter of education, adapting to the ocean and getting back to how it should be — going wild again,” he said.
“The fact is, the ocean we’ve been enjoying for the past 30 years isn’t in the healthiest state,” Hueter said. “That’s what people know — what they grew up with, so they think it should be.”
“Go back to the 1950s, 1960s, you’ll see better fishing, better sharks, more birds, everything,” he said. “We want to get back to that: a healthy, balanced ecosystem.”