Sharks at Shore for Food

Thinking the shark he swam into at Gibson Beach in Sagaponack was dead, Jameson Ellis pulled it to shore, but finding it alive, he towed the struggling creature back into the water. Jill Musnicki

They’re back. Shark Week, the summer tradition airing each year on the Discovery Channel, ended its 2018 run on Sunday. The show has continued in real time along our ocean beaches, however, as a number of rather large sandbar tiger and thresher sharks have been either landed by thrill-seeking surfcasters or just witnessed beyond the surf line not far from those enjoying a day at the beach. A number of dead sandbar tiger sharks have been found along the beach in recent days, too.

Several different species of sharks are frequent visitors to our local waters. Everything from the lowly dogfish to the king of the seas, the great white, seems to make an annual visit at one point or another to South Fork beaches. Whales and porpoises have also been seen in great abundance.

“Without a doubt, there seems to be more sharks closer to shore the past few years,” Capt. Michael Potts of the Montauk-based charter boat Blue Fin IV said on Tuesday afternoon while returning to port. “The other evening, another captain here caught three sandbar tiger sharks just off the Montauk Lighthouse while trying for striped bass.”

Captain Potts noted that a large amount of food, including bunker, mackerel, and sand eels, has taken up residence close to shore the past three summers and is likely the reason that the sharks have found a summer home. 

“There is a ton of bait out there, and a lot of it is pretty close to the beach,” the skipper, a veteran of 40 years, said. “I just passed through Cartwright” — an area five miles south of the Montauk Lighthouse — “and you could see the bait everywhere. Where there is bait, there are fish. It goes the same for sharks, whales, everything.”

Harvey Bennett, who has owned the Tackle Shop in Amagansett for 39 years, is not surprised that sharks are being seen and caught close to the beach. “There are sharks around for sure, but I actually think there were more around last summer. Like last year, there is just a lot of bait around, and it will attract just about anything, including sharks and whales,” he said on Tuesday. “Where there are whales, there are sharks.”

“Just a few years ago, there were very few people who would actually try to catch a shark,” Bennett said. “Folks were just focused on bluefish and striped bass. But today there are more and more people actually trying to catch one from the ocean beach. Over the past few years, I’ve sold a number of outfits that are more capable of landing a larger fish like a shark. As such, I think you are also seeing more of them as the equipment being used can actually land a fish of such size.”

“It’s easy fishing, too,” he added. “Besides some stout tackle, all you need is to bait up with a chunk of bunker and you are set.”

Ken Morse, the owner of Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor, and an avid surfcaster, also remarked that several fellow surfcasters have found a number of dead sandbar tiger sharks washed up on the ocean beaches in the past two weeks.

“It’s probably two things,” he concluded. “First, if you catch one of these sharks, they drown quickly when they are picked up by the tail and dragged backwards up to the beach. Water, and especially the sand, will choke and fill in their gills. They basically suffocate to death.” 

Morse also thought that some of the dead sharks were the victims of being trapped and released by commercial gillnets. “Some of the pictures I’ve seen look like the sharks are pretty beaten up and scarred,” he said. “Gillnets are not very forgiving to anything that gets tangled up in them.” 

Neither the sandbar tiger nor thresher shark is considered dangerous to humans, but the fact that some fish weighing over 100 pounds have been landed or found dead on the beach has led some bathers to be cautious.

“I’m not overly concerned, but if I see a fin or if a shark has been caught, I might give it a second of concern on entering the water,” said James Gallagher of Manhattan, a frequent visitor to Sagg Main Beach in Sagaponack. “Our family was up in Cape Cod last month, and they seem to be more used to such occurrences, as they always have sightings of great white sharks.” 

Over the past 10 years or so, the Cape Cod area has witnessed an increase in the sightings of great white sharks, resulting in a number of beach closings, as the population of seals, a favorite food of the great white shark, continues to grow. 

“There certainly have been quite a few shark sightings close to shore of late,” Frank Quevedo, the director of the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton, said yesterday morning. “We have received a lot of calls from people at the ocean asking what kind of shark they may have seen. Most have been sandbar tiger sharks.”

Quevedo agrees with Morse that many of the dead sandbar tiger sharks found likely died as a result of being dragged backward through the sand when caught, but he added that the sandbar tiger is a shallow-water feeder that sometimes can accidentally beach itself when looking for food.

“Sandbar tiger sharks usually come very close to the shore at night to feed in as little as one or two feet of water,” he said. “They are prone to suffocating if they do not get enough oxygen.” 

In May, SoFo established the Shark Research and Education Program, an alliance with the Long Island Shark Collaboration, to tag and study the habits and patterns of four sharks found in the waters here: great white, dusky, sandbar, and thresher. On July 19, the group tagged its first juvenile white shark of the 2018 season off Long Island. A satellite tag was attached to the 1-year-old pup’s dorsal fin to record water temperature and the depth of the animal every five minutes for 28 days, before the tag breaks off.

“Long Island is now known as a nursery ground for white sharks,” Quevedo said. In general, sharks are balance keepers and serve as an important part of our near-shore ecosystems, and we want to learn more about their habits. It’s amazing the amount of important data we received from the tagged sharks.” 

Unexpectedly, the day the white shark was tagged, two bathers were nipped in the leg by unidentified sharks in two separate incidents on the same day near Fire Island, about 45 miles west of Montauk. 

“A true, deadly shark attack is beyond incredibly rare,” Bennett said. “I think this all ultimately shows we have a pretty healthy ecosystem out in our waters here. The past few years have been unusual in the amount of bait around. It’s been really interesting to witness all of this.”

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation biologists are seeking assistance from the public if sharks are seen while fishing, boating, or enjoying a day at the beach. The D.E.C. Shark Spotter survey aims to help biologists better understand the habits of sharks off New York. The digital survey can be found on the D.E.C.’s website.

Saskia Friedrich and her family spotted five dead sharks, including this one, washed up on the beach between Town Line Road and Peter’s Pond in Sagaponack over the weekend. Saskia Friedrich