Why great white shark sightings are good news

great white shark

Great white sharks aren’t common in the Atlantic, but sightings are perfectly normal.

pterantula/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the past week or so, people in the northeastern United States have been seeing a lot of probably disturbing reports of great white sharks: A group of friends fishing a mile off Rockaway Beach in Queens, N.Y., caught a baby great white, which they tagged and released. A tuna fisherman about six miles from Provincetown, Mass., in Cape Cod Bay spotted a 16- to 18-foot shark circling his boat. And fishermen in New Jersey were startled by a great white that chewed on the chum bag they had hung off the side of their boat. (What were they thinking? That was perfect shark bait.)

Coming across a great white shark, with its mouth full of sharp teeth, is probably a bit scary — but it’s perfectly normal, especially for this area of the Atlantic in the summer. Great white sightings are actually on the uptick there, and it’s a sign that the shark population is doing well.

More concrete evidence of the species’ well-being comes from a study published earlier this month in PLOS ONE. Tobey Curtis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and colleagues compiled records of great whites in the northwest Atlantic from a variety of sources, including fishery data, research surveys and newspaper articles. Their tally totaled 649 records spanning from 1800 to the present.

The shark sightings varied by time of year. In winter, sharks mostly kept to warm places in the Gulf of Mexico and southeastern United States, never traveling farther north than Cape Hatteras, N.C. In summer, the sharks head north, to waters spanning the mid-Atlantic states up to Canada.

At that time of year, “most records were centered from the New York Bight eastward and north to Cape Cod,” the researchers note. So this month’s sightings have occurred exactly where you would expect great whites to be found right now.

The data also revealed a dip in shark sightings in the northwest Atlantic in the 1970s and 1980s, a time of heavy recreational and commercial fishing. But the population rebounded in more recent years following the implementation of conservation measures. Even so, Curtis and colleagues note, “the white shark remains an uncommon and sparsely distributed predator” in this region.

Finding great white sharks in waters not too far from where families frolic on the beach is certainly scary, but shark attacks are actually incredibly rare events (if you’re going to worry about a deadly animal, fear the mosquito). And as apex predators, sharks really are necessary parts of the aquatic food web.

So if you happen to spot one of these relatives of Jaws in your summer adventures, keep your distance, snap a video and count yourself lucky that you got to see in person one of nature’s most awesome aquatic predators.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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