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Are sharks becoming more dangerous?

A recent publication in the Journal of Fish Biology emphasizes the need for more research on shark activity in the New York Bight, a triangular coastal region from New Jersey to New York City and Long Island.

The researchers say that the lack of evidence about shark biology, their prey, and changes in the ecosystems of New York area coastal waters is a driving force to expand research about sharks and their populations in the region. 

This call to action is led by Oliver N. Shipley, PhD, from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University

In recent years, Dr. Shipley has observed a discrepancy between scientific facts and media information regarding the presence of sharks in the costal waters of New York.

Lack of historical data

“Recent spikes in interactions between humans and sharks in the New York Bight have sparked widespread reporting of possible causalities, many of which lack empirical support,” explained the study authors. 

“Here we comment on the current state of knowledge regarding shark biology and management in New York waters emphasizing that the possible drivers of increased human–shark interactions are confounded by a lack of historical monitoring data.” 

“We outline several key research avenues that should be considered to ensure the safe and sustainable coexistence of humans, sharks, and their prey, in an era of accelerated environmental change.”

Human-shark interactions

As the summer of 2023 winds down, there is widespread belief that the New York Bight has seen an upsurge in human-shark interactions. This perspective is linked to alleged increasing shark populations and alterations in their feeding patterns.

“Shark populations are poorly studied in the New York Bight. When human-shark interactions occur, this paucity of scientific data has resulted in inaccurate messages from some mainstream media trying to assign causality to these incidents,” said Dr. Shipley. 

“We are calling for steps to be taken to advance scientific knowledge in order to better understand shark populations and why human-shark interactions may be occurring.”

Increased shark activities

Shark populations have been declining worldwide due to issues such as targeted fishing and accidental captures. However, the waters of the New York Bight have received heightened media attention due to claims of increased shark activities near the shoreline. 

Along the south shore of Long Island, several people reported being bitten over the July 4th weekend, including two 15-year-olds. None of the injuries were fatal. 

The study authors caution against drawing hasty conclusions, pointing out that while shark sightings and reports of human-shark encounters have risen, it would be “irresponsible and risky” to assign any immediate cause without scientific backing.

Future research

The researchers outlined several critical areas for future research that they hope will promote positive attitudes of sharks and their conservation and help mitigate future human-shark conflicts.

Key areas of study

Coastwide monitoring programs

With the backdrop of climate change, there’s an urgent need to monitor shark activities through diverse methodologies. 

This could encompass coastal drone surveys, environmental DNA assessments, and in-depth spatial analyses to understand the relationship between sharks, their prey, and changing climates.

Long-term data collection

Study senior author Dr. Michael Frisk believes that such surveys will yield long-term data that can help determine how sharks distribute in response to environmental changes and prey movement. 

This, in turn, could offer insights into potential human-shark interactions, aiding in predicting and possibly averting them.

“Hotspots” exploration

Research teams at SoMAS are delving into the identification of “hotspots” or regions of heightened shark-prey interaction along southern Long Island, especially those affected by rising ocean temperatures.

To support these initiatives, Dr. Shipley and his team plan to conduct drone surveys at several beaches. 

The goal is to obtain more precise data about the likelihood of human-shark encounters and the environmental factors that may influence them.

The team hopes to provide more informed understanding of sharks, dispelling myths and misconceptions, and consequently ensuring safer coexistence.

Image Credit: Julie Larsen, Wildlife Conservation Society

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