Great white sharks in the northeast – as common as sunburns

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Spotting sharks close to shore along the eastern seaboard is no longer an anomaly.
Wayne Davis

Sightings of northeast great white sharks are no longer uncommon. Although exciting, fun and dramatic to watch, there have been a number of recent attacks. Attacks that started in Massachusetts and moved to Maine have now hit the New York coast. The reason is simple: seals.

Until 1971, hunters controlled the seal populations of the Bay State through a bounty system. Five dollars per nose was paid, and while the animals’ fur was used, the main purpose of the harvest was to keep the fish populations robust. Kristina Cammen, a marine mammal scientist at the University of Maine, suggests that the 20th century seal population in New England was reduced from around 135,000 to so low that they were nearly extinct. No seals meant no sharks because apex predators stayed far offshore where they feasted on dead or dying whales.

Our current perfect storm began to brew with the passing of the Marine Mammal Protection Act 1972 (MMPA). The act had a noble purpose of resuscitating populations of seals, dolphins, and whales, and it worked. Seal populations have increased rapidly. In fact, from late June through Thanksgiving, hardly a day goes by without a shark being spotted near shore.

It wasn’t long before someone got bitten. The first was ten years ago, in July 2012. Christopher Myers was swimming with his son on Cape Cod’s Ballston Beach when a shark left him with eight deep gashes and several torn tendons. Six years later, in 2018, William Lytton, a 61-year-old neurologist from Westchester, New York, was attacked while swimming near resting seals at Longnook Beach on Cape Cod. He survived, but a month later Arthur Medici, 26, did not. Medici was boogie boarding a few beaches down at Newcomb Hollow in Wellfleet. A shark bit her lower body and severed her femoral artery. He died at the scene.

Seals on the beach
An abundance of seals means more apex predators looking for an easy meal.
Tom Kerer

Maine’s seal population has also increased. In 2020, Julie Dimperio Holowach from New York was swimming with her daughter off Bailey Island when she was attacked by a shark. If you think a shark attack in Maine is unusual, you’re right. The University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File has recorded only one other unprovoked shark attack in the state since 1837. That’s two attacks in 185 years, or roughly one attack nearly every century.

The current shark hotspot is Long Island, New York. There were five attacks between June 30 and July 13, 2022, averaging 2.5/week.

On July 13, 2022, a 49-year-old man from Arizona was bitten on the buttocks at Seaview Beach on Fire Island, Long Island. He was standing in water up to his waist, which should give every angler pause. It was the second shark bite of the day, around 7 a.m. Shawn Donnely, 41, suffered a 4-inch bite to the leg while surfing at Smith Point County Park, also on Long Island. The shark knocked him off his surfboard and circled him. Fortunately, a wave pushed Donnely onto the beach and he survived.

Great White being tagged
A great white about to be tagged off the coast of Massachusetts.
Conservation of Atlantic white sharks

But understand this; Donnely was not the first shark bite on this specific beach. The first happened two weeks earlier, on July 3, when Zach Gallo, a lifeguard, was bitten by a shark during a training exercise. And guards were going over protocol for “what to do if bitten by a shark.” And he’s not the only lifeguard to have been bitten by a shark. A teenage guard bit his foot on July 7 at Ocean Beach. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.

Long Island’s first attack of the season came on June 30 at Jones Beach when a 37-year-old swimmer was bitten on the foot. The answer to that? Get used to it, says Christopher Paparo, director of the Stony Brook University Marine Science Center. There are many more sharks than 10 or 15 years ago, he says. “We spot sharks, whales and dolphins here. In the 1960s we didn’t have sharks, whales and dolphins. Warmer ocean waters and significant increases in the menhaden population are cited as reasons for Long Island’s shark numbers.

All of this shark activity is changing angler behavior, and there are plenty of ways to handle the situation. Do you remember the joke about the two friends having a picnic in the woods? They look up and see a grizzly in the distance and it starts running straight at them. One friend begins to run away, while the other nonchalantly opens his backpack, pulls out his running shoes, takes off his hiking boots, and begins to stretch.

“Are you insane?!” shouts the first friend. “You can’t outrun a bear!”

“I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the second friend said. “I just have to outrun you.”

It’s the same with sharks. Another way is to be careful.

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