Sharks are treating New York waters like a restaurant — and the state government is the Maître d’.
Great whites and other sharks have been coming close to Long Island beaches this year to feast on a particular kind of bait fish that has been flourishing in New York waters ever since the state legislature voted unanimously to preserve it three years ago.
With the population of Atlantic Menhaden booming, sharks are swimming into shore like tourists bellying up to a buffet — and in the process, they are coming close to bathers with disastrous results, experts told The Post.
“The reason why people are interacting with sharks more often this year and more than last year is because of conservation efforts over the years [that] has protected a food source known as the Atlantic Menhaden,” Frank Quevedo, executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum Shark Research and Education Program, told the Post.
“If there’s a school of Menhaden or baitfish close to shore, and sharks are feeding on that, they’re gonna fight any way they can, or shove other fish out of the way to feed on that food source. So, if people are in the middle of that frenzy … they’re gonna get bitten and that’s what happens.”
The recent spike in shark-human interactions should be no surprise. The legislative memo specifically notes that the protected Atlantic Menhaden are a “major food source” for sharks, as well as whales, dolphins, predatory fish, seals and seabirds.
However, Assemblymember Steve Englebright, who sponsored the bill along with state Senator Todd Kaminsky, said he didn’t consider the possibility it would lead to increased shark activity.
“I’m not sure that one could have predicted there would be the seriousness that this has become.”
Six beachgoers have been bitten by sharks and there have been a slew of shark sightings from Rockaway Beach to the Hamptons, just in the month of July. On Wednesday, the corpse of a six- to eight-year-old shark washed up on the beach in Quogue.
Because of where the Atlantic Menhaden — also known as bunker — swim they can draw sharks in as close as 20 yards to shore, Quevedo said. They can be found as far as 15 miles off the coast, too, he noted.
The bill — which was passed unanimously in both the senate and assembly before Gov. Cuomo signed it into law in April 2019 — outlawed capturing Atlantic Menhaden using a drawstring-bag-like fishing net.
It was an attempt to restore the species after significant overfishing nearly decimated the population in 2011.
Despite the correlation to increased shark interactions, Englebright says he stands by the bill, but would like to see an education system about shark safety put into place.
“It’s having positive results,” he said, stating he’s noticed flourishing osprey nests along the South Shore. “I don’t doubt that there are collisions taking place between bathers and probably tiger sharks that are looking for those same mistakes, people’s feet for fish … That’s not something that one can legislate.”
Sen. Kaminsky did not respond to request for comment.
“We’re seeing more sharks because of better fisheries management and because of cleaner waters,” said Christopher Paparo, manager of Stony Brook University’s Marine Sciences Center. “We’re seeing more sharks because our environment is much healthier and populations are much stronger due to conservation.”
Paparo specifically mentions the conservation of the Atlantic Menhaden.
He emphasizes that sharks are not changing their behaviors to be more aggressive; there are just a lot more of them.
“What you’re seeing is a game of numbers. More sharks, people, there’s a greater chance there’s going to be an interaction,” he said. “One thing to keep in mind: seeing sharks in our local ecosystem is extremely important. It’s a sign that the environment around us is healthy.”
The state has since tried to offset the consequences of its legislation by deploying patrol boats, drones and helicopters on the South Shore along with more public outreach on the dangers of the marine predators.
On July 18, Gov. Kathy Hochul boosted state park lifeguard staff by 25 percent by having them work overtime to spot the predators before a possible interaction can take place.
The most common sharks in Long Island waters are Sandbar, Sand Tiger and Dusky sharks, Paparo said, but Quevedo points out there is a Great White nursery just off the coast where hundreds of the giant fish lurk.
“Juvenile white sharks are born somewhere offshore,” Quevedo said. “That we know is a fact because of scientific data that we’ve accumulated the last five years to confirm the South Shore Long Island as a nursery for juvenile white shark species.”
Mother sharks give birth offshore around May each year, and the young make their way inshore to feed on smaller fish, like the Atlantic Menhaden, that reside in shallower waters. Though the juveniles leave for warmer waters each winter, they return each summer until they reach adulthood and can chase bigger prey, such as whales and seals, in deeper waters.
The expert emphasizes that sharks are not intentionally biting humans, however. If they wanted to attack people, Quevedo said, there would be mayhem.
“If the sharks were here to attack people, people would be dying and bleeding to death and losing limbs,” he said.