Attracted by seals and fish, great white sharks are increasingly present off the American coast. Predators are closing in on tourist beaches, prompting residents and authorities to be more vigilant.
It’s an animal protection success with unfortunate repercussions: Great white sharks have been increasing in numbers in recent years off the American east coast, increasing the likelihood of unfortunate encounters with swimmers. Every year, during the summer months, these predators make their way up the Atlantic coast of the United States, towards New England. The peak of the season occurs between August and October. In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the main character of the “sea teeth” it thus became a tourist attraction, adorning caps and t-shirts. But the beaches have also had to be temporarily closed this year because of the animal’s presence.
Sharks tracked with tags
Nearly 300 great white sharks have been tagged over the years, and about 10 of them are already present in the area, according to Gregory Skomal, a shark biologist at Massachusetts. He estimates that more than a hundred great white sharks may pass through these waters each year. Regulations have been implemented in the Atlantic since the 1990s to protect them from fishing. “There is a general increase in population, which we think is a recovery after (…) very high levels of overexploitation”, explains to AFP, although it is still difficult to give a precise estimate of their number. In addition, white sharks tend to swim closer and closer to shore to hunt one of their favorite prey: seals. They too have been protected, and their numbers are growing. Result: more sharks venturing closer to swimming areas. “Shark attacks are very rare, but in the last ten years we have seen more of them”says Gregory Skomal.
Other Shark Species Responsible for Bites
In New York state, the governor has just announced additional surveillance patrols, including by drone or helicopter. On the tourist beaches of Long Island, several shark bites have already been reported in the press – the white shark is not necessarily responsible, several other species evolving in the region, in particular tiger sharks and bull sharks. This number of attacks is unusual, after three years without deploring any. According to Gavin Naylor, director of a shark research program at the University of Florida, this observation is linked to the increased presence this year of certain fish attracting predators, possibly due to warm currents.
Most frequent attacks in the United States
But if things can vary a lot locally from one year to the next, globally there are still around 75 shark attacks recorded each year – after a drop to around 60 during the two years of the pandemic. The number of deaths is around five. In the last twenty years, only two deaths have been deplored in North Delaware in the United States, on Cape Cod in 2018 and in Maine in 2020. But in the future, it is reasonable to think that the number of victims will increase. “There are more white sharks, so the probability will increase. (…) There will be more bites”, summarized Gavin Naylor. For now, the general variations observed are not statistically significant, according to him. Surfers, who venture more into the water, accounted for half of unprovoked attacks in 2021. Further south, Florida, with its many tourist beaches and tropical climate, still accounts for 60% of American attacks – and nearly 40 % of global attacks.
a bad reputation
Sharks are far from the bloodthirsty beasts sometimes portrayed in movies. Studies have shown that they can mistake surfers or beachgoers for their usual prey – in particular white sharks, which have pretty bad eyesight. “With so many people in the water around the world, if sharks preferred to feed on human prey, we would have tens of thousands of attacks every year.”, launches Gregory Skomal. With climate change, the expert hopes that rising ocean temperatures will gradually prolong the season when sharks are present in the northern United States.
Report the presence of sharks with an app
So what can be done to limit the risks? There is an app for everyone to report seeing a shark. In the water, “look around you”, advises Nick Whitney, a scientist at the New England Aquarium. If a large number of birds hunt for fish, “this probably means that the sharks that also feed on them are present”. And if bitten, the real danger is bleeding, so it’s important to get to the shore and control the bleeding until help arrives.
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