Ocean hunters have been hunted to the brink by humans


Shark Week arrived this month amidst news reports identifying (and misidentifying) sharks swimming close to beaches of New Jersey and Long Island. You might think that as a long-time marine biologist working in shark conservation and doing shark research right here in our local waters, I would find that confluence of great interest.
But while Shark Week brings sharks into the living rooms of millions of viewers every year, by hammering away about shark “attacks” and driving fear into beachgoers, I think it largely gives these magnificent predators a bum rap.
Growing up in New York and New Jersey, I have been swimming with sharks my whole life, and guess what? So have you! As one of the most ancient groups of living vertebrates, sharks have been plying the ocean for more than 400 million years. Humans are the newcomers, the occasional visitors in sharks’ salty living rooms.
Beach-goers enjoy the surf at Smith Point County Park, a Long Island beach where shark bit a lifeguard 10 days earlier, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Shirley, N.Y. (John Minchillo/AP)
Since the 1970s, fueled by demand for their fins (for shark fin soup), meat, other products, and for recreation, more than 100 million sharks have been killed in global fishing operations annually. Who’s the predator and who’s the prey here? This fishing pressure has led to population declines in some species by as much as 60-80%.
As a result, sharks and rays are the second most threatened group of vertebrates on the planet, with more than one-third of the 1,200-plus known species now facing extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
Few realize that here in the New York Bight — the seascape encompassing Atlantic waters from Cape May, N.J. to Montauk at the tip of Long Island — at least 40 species of sharks and rays spend spring, summer, and fall in our local bays and nearshore waters. Our tagging research has demonstrated that Great South Bay is an important summer nursery ground for severely depleted sand tiger sharks.
By the 1990s, U.S. scientists started ringing alarm bells about plummeting shark populations. With broad support from the public, management plans were implemented to make shark fisheries more sustainable and responsible. After 30 years of hard-won fisheries management and conservation measures, we are finally beginning to reverse the tide for some of these depleted species.
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That’s the good news. But we still have a long way to go before local sharks have returned to their numbers back when I frolicked in the surf as a kid at the Jersey Shore. How do I know that? Biology. Simply put, shark populations cannot recover quickly. Most sharks grow very slowly, take up to 23 years to reach sexual maturity, then produce a few pups every two to three years.
This low productivity makes them exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing. Once depleted, shark populations can take decades to recover, even if fishing is completely stopped. Scientists estimate it will take at least 100 years to rebuild overfished dusky sharks and porbeagle sharks off our coast.
So if local sharks remain at levels less than half what they were in the 1970s, why does it seem like there are so many more of them around these days? Lots of hypotheses have been floated, but we know one thing for sure. Although sharks have always lived here, there are now many more people and “eyes” on the water, with more cameras, cell phones, and drones.
Media coverage of the uptick in local human-shark interactions has fueled misinformation and public fear. How we talk about sharks matters for both conservation and public safety. Incidents of people encountering sharks in our waters should not be called “attacks,” or even “bites.” They’re better described as accidental “interactions.” Sharks come to our productive coasts in search of their prey, which mainly consist of crabs, mollusks, and small fishes — not people.
Still, it’s fair to ask if there is anything else behind the recent increase in shark sightings. Later this summer, in an effort to guide fishery management and public safety, my team at the New York Aquarium will host a workshop to assess changes to shark presence in our nearshore waters. We are also supporting proposed New York State regulations to eliminate shark fishing from the beach, which puts both sharks and people at risk.
Robust populations of sharks in our waters is actually a really good thing. Sharks are important indicators of healthy and productive marine ecosystems, which we all depend on. Investing in science will help us understand how we can better coexist with sharks, now and for generations. That’s why for me and my colleagues working to protect these vulnerable ocean icons, every week is Shark Week.
Camhi directs the New York Seascape program at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium.


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