A law to conserve a species of fish may have inadvertently led to a recent uptick in shark attacks in the state of New York.
Experts interviewed by the New York Post Thursday said that sharks are returning to the waters off Long Island Sound because of a boom in the population of Atlantic menhaden, a species of fish native to the area. That means sharks have been approaching Long Island beaches, and in the process, have been coming dangerously close to, and in some cases biting, beachgoers.
“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 New York 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.”
Menhaden, also known as bunker, are a species of baitfish that is eaten by larger fish and sharks. They are also commonly used to produce fish oil and fish meal for dietary supplements, animal food, and as an ingredient in other food products. Overfishing decimated the population in the area by 2011. The State Legislature unanimously passed — and then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed — a bill in 2019 to put severe restrictions on the use of large nets called purse seines in fishing for menhaden, and banned their use in parts of the Long Island Sound.
The bill has had its intended effect, the Post noted — Humpback whales are staying in New York waters longer, and sharks have been spotted frequently in the shallows across Long Island. But Quevedo told the Post that because the fish swim so close to shore — in some cases as close as 20 yards from shore — they can draw sharks in with them, putting them in contact with people. Six beachgoers have already been victims of shark attacks so far this summer. A 16-year-old surfer was the latest victim; he was bitten in the waters of Fire Island Wednesday.
“What you’re seeing is a game of numbers. More sharks, people, there’s a greater chance there’s going to be an interaction,” Christopher Paparo, manager of Stony Brook University’s Marine Sciences Center, told the Post. “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.”
But Quevedo said that sharks are not biting humans on purpose. “If the sharks were here to attack people, people would be dying and bleeding to death and losing limbs,” he said.
Assemblyman Steve Englebright, one of the bill’s sponsors in the State Assembly, said he could not have anticipated the “seriousness” of the increased shark activity. Still, he told the Post that he stands by the bill. “It’s having positive results,” Englebright said. “I don’t doubt that there are collisions taking place between bathers and probably tiger sharks that are looking for those Menhaden and mistaking people’s feet for fish. … That’s not something that one can legislate.”