Two more people were bitten by sharks off the shores of Fire Island Wednesday, the fourth and fifth reported bites of the season on Long Island — an alarming uptick over prior years, according to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
A surfer was knocked off his board at 7:30 a.m. off of Smith Point on Fire Island by what he thought was a tiger shark that bit him on the calf, leaving a 4-inch gash, Bellone said at a press conference.
Suffolk County parks officials halted swimming for four hours at the beach Wednesday morning, following the reported bite. It was the second incident off of Smith Point in a matter of days. Earlier this month a lifeguard was bitten during a training exercise.
“To have two of these incidents happen for us, for this beach, is unprecedented. We’ve not seen this before,” Bellone said. “What we’re looking at is something of a new normal. Tiger sharks are just a little bit closer to shore than they’ve been … Fortunately we’ve not seen any significant injuries.”
Later that evening at Seaview Beach, about 15 miles west of Smith Point on Fire Island at 6:05 p.m. a 49-year-old man from Arizona was bitten on the wrist and butt while standing in waist-deep water, according to Suffolk County Police. The man was taken to the hospital in a helicopter for non-life threatening injuries.
In addition to the shark bites off of Smith Point and Seaview so far this season, people were reportedly bitten off the shores of Ocean Beach and Jones Beach. All of the victims survived the encounters with non-life threatening injuries.
The five reports of unprovoked shark bites this year mark an increase over recent years. New York had just four confirmed, unprovoked bites in the last decade and none last year, according to researchers from the University of Florida.
“If these are indeed shark incidents, it is a bit concerning,” said Craig O'Connell, with the O'Seas Conservation Foundation, Inc., a Montauk-based shark conservation group. O’Connell reached out to Suffolk County officials to help them come up with a plan to mitigate and deter shark bites.
Experts say the attacks are still incredibly rare, and there are simple things swimmers can do to reduce their risk of a bad encounter. Gavin Naylor, the director of shark research at the University of Florida, said one is 200 times more likely to die of drowning than getting bitten by a shark. He said the reported bites in New York this year were in line with longer-term trends globally; where conditions align causing a flurry of bites, whether that's in Hawaii, western Australia, or Long Island.
“If sharks were interested in biting people, we'd have tens of thousands of shark bites every day. There's lots of sharks in the water and there's lots of people in the water,” he said. “So the fact that they're so incredibly rare is a reflection of the fact that when it does happen, it's a mistake.”
Certain types of conditions can make a shark more likely to accidentally bite a human, Naylor said, such as low-visibility in ocean waters. Experts recommend staying clear of fishermen who might be chumming the waters, not swimming at dawn and dusk when sharks are more likely to be feeding, and not swimming near schools of bait fish, lest you be mistaken for one. Wearing shiny jewelry or swimming with an open wound or while menstruating can increase your risk.
Some experts have suggested warmer waters tied to climate change have lured bait fish further north, though Naylor urged caution on that front, indicating shifting Gulf Stream currents have brought warmer and cooler waters to our area for thousands of years. He added that an increase in bait fish swimming closer to shore this year could contribute to more shark encounters. Worldwide shark populations are on the decline, mainly due to overfishing.
O'Connell is involved in longer-term research to see whether an increase in tiger, blacktip and spinner sharks off of Long Island is correlated with warming waters.
“This isn’t the summer of the shark,” O'Connell said. “We absolutely need sharks in order to have a healthy ocean, so let's respect their presence and enjoy our summer by co-existing!”
This story has been updated with additional context.