By Gregory B. Hladky
5:20 PM EDT, September 6, 2012
Great whites are cruising off our shores, around Cape Cod and Long Island and even in the Sound, the experts say. They’re hunting, but not for us.
This summer has seen increasing reports of these great sharks in the waters off southern New England. Beaches have been closed. A kayaker was followed. A body surfer was bitten in the leg but escaped alive. A 1,600 pournd carcass of one of these bad boys washed up on a Rhode Island beach.
And marine biologists say it’s foolish to think they aren’t also swimming in Long Island Sound. “If their food is here, there’s no reason for them not to be found in the Sound,” says Jack Schneider, curator of animals at the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium.
Turns out seals happen to be the favorite prey of these apex predators, and there are now more seals in southern New England waters than there have been in a long, long time. It’s a simple equation: the more seals you have, the more great whites you’ll have.
(Before any of you would-be shark killers get too excited about replaying some of those explosion scenes from “Jaws,” keep in mind that great whites are protected under federal law. You can catch them with a rod and reel, but you’ve got to let them go.)
No one has a real solid number of how many seals we get in Long Island Sound.
“It’s hard to give an estimate on the seal population,” says Schneider. “But reports of sightings have increased a lot in recent years.”
Seal populations throughout New England have been rising ever since the passage of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. That legislation made it illegal to kill whales, seals and other marine mammals. In fact, the law says you’re not supposed to get within 50 meters (164 feet) of a seal.
Right up to the 1960s, some states like Maine offered bounties on dead seals. Fishermen saw seals as competitors and killed them every chance they got.
Surveys in recent years have shown some dramatic increases in seal populations in breeding grounds like Muskeget Island off the tip of Nantucket – the largest “pupping area” for gray seals on the eastern coast of the U.S., according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The seal most often seen in Long Island Sound is the harbor seal (Phoca vitulina). They tend to breed and give birth farther north, then migrate into the Sound beginning in late summer and early autumn. That’s when the gray seals begin to arrive as well, Schneider says.
Harp and hooded seals show up too, but only rarely, he adds.
So far, there’s no solid evidence that seals are actually having their pups in Long Island Sound.
In the last few years, there have been groups of 60-70 harbor and gray seals spotted wintering over on the islands off Norwalk, Schneider says. The eastern Sound, around Fisher’s Island for example, has even larger numbers during the winter months, he adds.
And where seals go, great whites will follow. Schneider says great whites aren’t like some deep sea sharks that normally stay in deep waters, and that makes sense. You go where you’re favorite food hangs out, and seals like the beach and the rocks.
Great whites, of course, aren’t the only sharks in the Sound. We’ve got sand tiger sharks (growing up to 10 feet long), brown sharks, also called sandbar sharks (reaching 8 feet or so), smooth dogfish sharks, aka “sand sharks” or “dogfish,” and even spiny dogfish sharks, which may be the world’s most abundant shark.
Don’t let all this shark talk get you too whipped up. The last confirmed shark attack on a human in Long Island Sound was in 1961, and it wasn’t fatal.
All the same, if you see something you think might be a great white, it might be smart to get out of the water for a while.
Who knows, you might look a little like a seal.
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