Editor's note: This article was updated to include a comment from NYC Parks.
All beaches on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, New York, were temporarily closed for swimming on Tuesday (July 19) after officials reported "multiple shark sightings" near the shore.
A surfer spotted one shark in the waters off Beach 67th Street and said the animal bumped into their board, while a lifeguard spotted a second shark near Beach 102nd Street, a city lifeguard told Gothamist (opens in new tab). In response, lifeguards and New York Police Department (NYPD) officers patrolled the shoreline, directing swimmers to exit the water, ABC7 reported (opens in new tab). At the same time, the NYPD Aviation Unit began conducting aerial surveillance of the waters around Rockaway to determine when it would be safe for swimmers to reenter.
"We decide when to open and close a beach due to shark sightings … a decision aided / informed by the NYPD Aerial team when necessary to confirm if sharks are still in the vicinity," Dan Kastanis, a NYC Parks spokesperson, told Live Science in an email. "If appropriate, the lifeguards will whistle people in shallower, or in extreme cases, whistle people out of the water; this is usually fairly localized and we make the determination based on a confirmed sighting, the size of the shark, and its proximity to the shoreline."
Tuesday's temporary closure followed one that took place on Sunday (July 17), when shark activity was reported in east Rockaway, according to Gothamist. And in recent weeks, five people have received nonfatal shark bites off beaches in Long Island, CBS News reported (opens in new tab).
Related: A 1,000-pound great white shark just spotted off coast of New Jersey
"No shark attack is trivial, but most bites from these sharks will not be fatal, or even close to fatal," Bob Hueter, chief scientist for OCEARCH, a global nonprofit organization that conducts research on sharks, told Newsday (opens in new tab). He added that most sharks seen near the Long Island shoreline tend to be small, measuring about 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) long, and are often the offspring of larger sharks that don't typically come near shore. These juveniles include dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus) and common thresher sharks (Alopias vulpinus), for example.
Sharks very rarely bite people, and when they do, it's usually because the shark was hunting prey and mistook the human for something else, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (opens in new tab). In addition, many sharks' teeth protrude from their mouths, so they can inadvertently injure people by simply brushing up against them; such encounters can easily be mistaken for "shark attacks."
To reduce the risk of human-shark interactions, follow these safety tips from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (opens in new tab):
- Avoid areas with seals.
- Avoid areas with schools of bait fish, often characterized by fish splashing on the surface, diving sea birds or the presence of marine mammals such as dolphins.
- Avoid areas where people are fishing.
- Avoid swimming in the ocean at dusk, dawn or nighttime.
- Avoid murky water.
- Avoid isolation. Swim, paddle, kayak, and surf in groups.
- Swim close to shore, where your feet can touch the bottom.
- Always follow the instructions of lifeguards and Parks staff.
- Adhere to all signage at beaches.
In response to the recent shark sightings, New York Governor Kathy Hochul directed the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the State Police to expand their shark surveillance programs, the governor's office announced (opens in new tab) July 18. This heightened surveillance will involve increased lifeguard staffing and upping the number of drones, boats and helicopters that the agencies use to look for sharks along the shoreline.
The apparent increase in shark sightings may be driven by a number of factors, experts say.
For one, rising ocean temperatures linked to climate change may be driving some shark species farther north than they're typically seen, The New York Times reported (opens in new tab) in 2021, after a local uptick in reported shark activity. Shark populations may also be increasing in New York waters thanks to an increase in menhaden — silvery schooling fish in the genera Brevoortia and Ethmidium that serve as critical prey for the apex predators.
More broadly, shark populations may be increasing due to ongoing conservation efforts aimed at restoring New York waters and helping shark populations rebound after they were decimated by overfishing and pollution in the 1970s, according to CBS News.
"Our ocean beaches, the Long Island Sound, a lot of these places have gotten much, much better in the last couple of years," Christopher Paparo, a manager of Stony Brook University's Marine Sciences Centerin Southampton, told CBS News. "If there are sharks in your area, it means it's a healthy ecosystem."
That said, the uptick in shark sightings may also be due to an increase in surveillance rather than a dramatic swelling of local shark populations, some experts say. Hans Walters, a field scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium who has spent over a decade studying sharks in New York waters, told the New York Times (opens in new tab) that he attributes the increase in shark sightings to the rise in surveillance by government officials and by civilians with smartphones and social media accounts.
"[Sharks have] been prowling the ocean for millions of years and there are no more sharks here this year, or last year, or the year before that," he said. "We’re just looking for them more."
Originally published on Live Science.