When it comes to shark attacks, Florida generally tops the world rankings. But recently, New York has made headlines for a series of dangerous encounters that have rocked New Yorkers and triggered beach closures.
Prior to 2022, there were only 12 recorded unprovoked bites in New York’s history, including four from the past decade, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File. But this month, there have been five non-fatal shark attacks on Long Island in just two weeks.
While the area is seeing an increase in bites, this is not yet a trend, according to researchers from the International Shark Attack File.
According to the International Shark Attack File, the odds of being fatally attacked by a shark remain below 1 in 4 million.
Still, experts say a combination of conservation efforts and climate change may have something to do with the rise in attacks in New York.
Robert Hueter, chief scientist at shark data organization OCEARCH, told CNN he believes conservation success was the biggest contributing factor to the recent cluster of shark bites.
Conservation efforts have brought back the “once overfished” baitfish that sharks feed on, Hueter says.
“When these schools head for the beach, the sharks go with them,” he said.
Humans have basically become accustomed to seeing a depleted shark population over the past few decades, Hueter says.
“Sharks have always been there to some degree, but their numbers have been much lower than they are now due to overfishing over the past 30 to 40 years,” he said. “Through concerted fisheries management efforts and fishing efforts, the sharks are being rebuilt, so the numbers are going back up.”
Additionally, sharks may move north as climate change and rising sea temperatures push their prey north in search of cooler waters. Climate change “plays a role, but isn’t the biggest driver right now” of shark bites, Hueter says.
Sweltering hot temperatures this summer mean more people – and sharks – at the beach.
“The country is hotter than it’s ever been. And that’s going to drive more people into the water than ever before, which just increases the likelihood of someone accidentally getting bitten,” Christopher said. Lowe, director of California State University’s Shark Lab. Long Beach.
And beach season for New Yorkers coincides with when most shark species head north for cooler waters.
“Most of these migratory animals will approach, if not at, the northernmost part of their range,” Hueter said. “This is also a time when young sharks born in spring or early summer are quite abundant in coastal waters in places like New York.”
Where are shark attacks happening and are they increasing?
Although there has been a steady increase in shark attacks around the world over the past 30 years, the numbers appear to be leveling off.
Last year, there were 73 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide, including 47 in the United States, which has the most documented unprovoked bites in the world, according to the International Shark Attack File.
Although the numbers represent an increase from 2020, when fewer people took to the beach amid the pandemic, they are still on par 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 an estimated 70 to 80 unprovoked attacks expected, according to Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
The majority of documented shark attacks in the United States occur 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 bites in Florida occur on the state’s Atlantic coast. Hueter attributes this to the Gulf Stream’s proximity to the shore, large waves, congestion of surfers and swimmers, and large schools of sharks in the area.
“There are sometimes huge aggregations of animals scurrying around the waves,” Hueter said. “When people are in the water, all pushed close to shore. That’s when the biting happens.”
By comparison, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, sharks have a lot more territory to “spread out” and there are fewer human-shark encounters, Hueter says.
The West Coast has seen nearly 100 attacks over the past 30 years.
Why do sharks attack?
Many attacks are “cases of mistaken identity,” occurring in conditions of poor water visibility, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“People are bitten but rarely eaten, and that tells us we’re not on the shark menu,” Lowe said.
Hueter says many of these bites occur when humans swim in or near large schools of prey fish. Small sharks that feed on schools of fish will “test the bite” of a person’s hand or foot but usually quickly let go.
“These incidents are really bites, not attacks where the animal is trying to cause fatal damage,” Hueter said.
Also, sharks may bite because they feel threatened and are simply trying to defend themselves.
“If you get in their way, or if they’re swimming, because they’re moving fast, the defensive reaction on their part is to bite,” Hueter said. “Especially something bigger than them.”
While “the shark attack” may conjure up images of the enormous great white shark from “Jaws,” Hueter points out that there are hundreds of species of sharks, “all totally different from each other.”
“Most of them are relatively small,” he said.
In the waters off New York, many previous bites have involved juvenile sand tiger sharks. There is a nursery for sand tiger sharks located off Fire Island along the south shore of Long Island.
“There is reason to believe that juveniles are more prone to biting, as they are less experienced and may feel more threatened because they are smaller,” Hueter said. “Especially because the bites off Long Island weren’t particularly severe, that’s indicative of a smaller animal.”
To avoid shark bites, swimmers should avoid swimming between dusk and dawn, swimming where people are fishing, swimming alone, and swimming around large schools of fish, Hueter says.
Hueter says that as our oceans get healthier, swimmers may have to adjust to more sharks in the water.
“It’s just a matter of nurturing, we’re adapting to the ocean to get back to how it should be – to get wild again,” he said.
“The fact is, the ocean that we’ve enjoyed for about 30 years is not in the healthiest state,” Hueter said. “It’s what people know – what they grew up with, so they think that’s how it should be.”
“Go back to the 1950s, 1960s, you find the fishing was better, the sharks were better, more birds, everything,” he said. “That’s what we want to get back to: a healthy and balanced ecosystem.”