The suspicion raised by a spate of bites and attacks this “Summer of the Shark” is correct: A lot more of them are out there.
The latest round of an ongoing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey showed not only a continuing rise in the number of apex predators caught — it came in with the highest total ever, two-thirds more than the last survey in 2012.
The 2,835 sharks captured and tagged in a range from Florida to Delaware included nearly 600 off South Carolina, where the survey began.
“Sandbars, dusky, black tip, a couple of silky, sand tigers, tigers, hammerhead — we caught the whole gamut,” said Lisa Natanson, NOAA survey leader. The spike in numbers from the 2012 survey was dramatic, she said, but the team has seen numbers steadily increasing since 2001. “Basically, we’re seeing more sharks.”
During a 1996 survey, one set of the 300 hooks used for each sample came back with bait and no sharks. This time, biologists pulled in 167 sharks in one sample, Natanson said. “We were running around like crazy tagging sharks.”
The finding is encouraging because sharks are vital to healthy fisheries, and worldwide many shark species are considered to be in serious decline, largely because of overfishing. Biologists credited the turnaround here to stricter federal shark fishing rules.
It’s small comfort for a legion of beachgoers. In South Carolina, at least three people were bitten by sharks — two severely — and eight were nipped earlier this summer. The numbers, over the course of little more than two months, outstripped yearly averages for the region.
But the cluster of bites likely was related more to environmental factors that brought more sharks closer to shore, and the bites waned when the conditions did, said Bryan Frazier, S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, who is involved in an ongoing tagging survey of tiger sharks off the coast.
“While there is likely some correlation between a rise in shark bites in recent years and shark populations recovering, I don’t think this year’s activity will be the new norm,” he said. “I do think as more and more people flock to the beach to vacation, and shark populations continue to recover, there is likely to be a slight increase in shark and human interactions. However, shark bites will likely remain a rare event.”
As a rule, South Carolina will get four or five reports of shark bites per year, according to DNR, most often nips when humans are mistaken for prey in roiled water. Nationally, the numbers vary widely and are somewhat deceptive because they include bites and attacks off Hawaii.
In 2014, 52 attacks were reported, including seven in Hawaii, according to the International Shark Attack File compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History. In contrast, 29 were recorded in 2009, the lowest year on record.
More sharks mean more fish. Recent studies have confirmed that large predators like sharks cull the weak and diseased of other species, helping keep an ecosystem healthy. By protecting the shark, you help maintain the populations of other, more fished-for species.
In the Atlantic off the East Coast, NOAA considers many shark species overfished. But the catch has been managed by permitting and gear restrictions; finning sharks, or catching to cut off the fins for sale, is illegal. Shark fins are popular, particularly in Asia, for soup and traditional cures.
“There’s less fishing pressure on these fish, so they’re possibly able to recover a little bit,” Natanson said.
The bottom line for beachgoers is there have always been a lot of sharks out there, she said. “You always have to be careful going in the water, but it’s a small risk.”
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