NEW YORK (Sept. 14, 2023) -- It seems logical to assume that if more people are encountering sharks in New York area waters, it is because there are more sharks. But as a new article in the Journal of Fish Biology points out, lack of information about shark populations makes it difficult to determine how local shark populations are changing.

Merry Camhi, one of the article’s authors and Director of the New York Seascape Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium, observed, “We just don’t have the data needed to determine whether shark populations are increasing or changing in their distribution along our coast.”

To help bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and sometimes inaccurate public assumptions, the WCS New York Seascape Program, in conjunction with partners at Stony Brook University, will host a science workshop this fall at the New York Aquarium to bring regional shark experts and available data together. The date of the workshop will be announced later.

“This is an important first step in our efforts to get a better assessment of sharks in the New York Bight and drivers of change,” Camhi said.

The focal area is known as the New York Bight, which encompasses coastal and offshore ocean waters from New Jersey’s Cape May to Montauk Point at the eastern tip of Long Island. New York Seascape and aquarium scientists conduct extensive shark research in the New York Bight, and through tagging and health studies, discovered that Long Island’s Great South Bay is an important nursery ground for juvenile sand tiger sharks.

Hans Walters, curator of the Animal Department at the New York Aquarium and a field scientist with the WCS New York Seascape Program, said, “While we have been doing research in the New York Bight for many years, all the researchers in the area need to work together to answer some of the most important questions we all have, like are shark numbers increasing or decreasing and how are risks like the climate crisis affecting their populations in the New York Bight?”

The Journal of Fish Biology article, “Emerging human-shark conflicts in the New York Bight: a call for expansive science and management,” highlights the relative dearth of data about sharks, their prey, and changes in ecosystems in area coastal waters. More comprehensive surveys would improve understanding of their habits and status and could help avoid negative human-shark interactions, the authors conclude.

The position paper acknowledges recent spikes in such encounters but questions anecdotal explanations that attribute them to greater shark numbers. Over the past 50 years, sharks, in these local waters and globally, have been severely depleted by targeted fishing and bycatch from commercial and recreational fisheries. Media stories meanwhile focus on shark encounters, which can fuel public fear, undermine conservation gains, and result in poor management decisions.

According to Camhi, “We need better data to assess the drivers of changing shark diversity, abundance, distribution, and behaviors here in the New York Bight. Although we’re hopeful that our conservation efforts are beginning to reverse these declines, it will take decades for populations of these vulnerable predators to recover because they grow so slowly and produce few young.”  

The goal of the upcoming workshop, Camhi said, is to expand the scientific knowledge base, mitigate human-shark conflicts, and promote positive attitudes toward shark conservation, as sharks are critical to ocean health and productivity.

Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, where both the article’s lead author and its senior author work, is currently examining noted “hotspots” of shark-prey interactions along southern Long Island and exploring how they may be influenced by warming oceans. Plans are underway for systematic drone surveys at pilot beaches to support local and state shark monitoring initiatives, in hopes of providing new data on the probability of human-shark overlap and what conditions may drive it. WCS will continue its collaborative tagging, health, and distribution surveys.

One goal of the effort is to ensure that people and sharks can coexist in coastal waters. Enhanced early-warning systems, such as targeted drone flights, to detect sharks near bathing beaches, were begun in parts of the New York Bight during 2023. But more research is needed to understand the dynamics of shark movements. The authors call for expanding coastwide monitoring programs within the context of climate change, and for monitoring shark populations through drone surveys, environmental DNA assessments, and long-term spatial analyses. In addition to providing data on the distribution of sharks, broader in-depth surveys would help improve public awareness, mitigate shark-human interactions, and inform shark conservation and management needs.

The lead author of the position paper is Oliver N. Shipley, PhD, a Research Assistant Professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University. Coauthors are Michael G. Frisk, also of SoMAS; Jill A. Olin of the Great Lakes Research Center, Michigan Technological University; Christopher Scott, Division of Marine Resources, New York Department of Environmental Conservation; and Merry Camhi, of the New York Seascape Program at the New York Aquarium and WCS.