Eye on FI: Sharks, Media Frenzy Hit the Beach

Shark Week arrived early on Fire Island when two kids were bitten while swimming here last month, days before Discovery Channel’s annual block of TV programming dedicated to the ocean’s apex predators.

Instead of living vicariously through their televisions, Fire Islanders got a first-hard taste of shark bite mania when the news media descended upon the barrier island to unleash a frenzy of their own – with results as bewildering as the thrashing itself.

“This was an incredibly unusual situation, to say the least,” Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter told a gaggle of reporters during an unusually well-attended news conference on the day of the attacks.

Here’s what we know: A 12-year-old girl was bitten on the leg by what the Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) speculated was a “large fish” in FINS-run Sailors Haven shortly before noon on Wednesday, July 18. Fifteen minutes later, and about four miles to to the west in Islip-run Atlantique Beach, a 13-year-old boy who wiped out while boogie boarding walked out of the water with a bite wound to the leg. A day later, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed that a tooth found lodged in the boy’s leg belonged to a tiger shark, although what exactly bit the girl remains a mystery. Both were treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

For perspective, the last shark attack on Long Island was 70 years ago, in 1948, according to officials and reports. That was one of ten in New York State since 1837, none of them fatal. People swimming in New York’s ocean waters are 130 times more likely to be struck by lightning than bitten by a shark. The worst case in tri-state history involved five shark attacks that claimed four lives over 12 days along the Jersey Shore during a 1916 heat wave.

That is to say, shark attacks don’t happen often on Long Island or in the New York Metro area. But nothing sets off a media frenzy like shark attack. One outlet reported that it was the same shark that bit both kids – something officials said would be impossible.

The now-infamous photo of a man dragging a shark ashore in Kismet later the same day made the cover of Newsday.* In the days that followed, reporters fanned out across the beach to cover each shark reeled in – broadcasting the common occurrence of such fish tales as if it were breaking news. It smacked of the so-called “Summer of the Shark” in 2001, when the tabloid media turned every shark incident into a national story, pushing the false narrative of an uptick in attacks.

To be clear, shark attacks are a semi-regular occurrence in the nation’s warmer oceanfront states. Florida historically has the most incidents, although few are deadly. Humans kill far more sharks for sport than sharks kill humans.

“Most shark attacks happen in the surf zone,” said Islip Town Councilman John Cochrane, a Navy veteran and seasoned diver. “Most of the shark bites that happen are hit-and-runs. The shark bites, then takes off.”
He noted that the incidents occurred as the Atlantic Ocean is a shark nursery. The larger sharks stay farther offshore, as they don’t want to get beached in the shallows. The shark pups are those likeliest to stay closer to shore.

“Right now, this is the breeding season,” he added, noting that he recently saw 10 baby sharks wash up in Hampton Bays. “The Great Whites spawn off of Amagansett, the Bull Sharks, the Tiger, the sand sharks, they’re all breeding right now.”

Of course, it’s not news that sharks live in the ocean, as anyone who has seen reports of sightings off our coast in recent years knows. Cochrane made reference to a recent expedition by the nonprofit group Ocearch that recently uncovered a Great White breeding ground off the coast of Long Island. The group also tags sharks with GPS devices and tracks them, posting their paths online for the public to see – showing just how often sharks visit our shores.

In the wake of the incidents, which prompted local officials to temporarily ban swimming at Long Island’s oceanfront beaches, authorities began using drones to monitor the shores more closely, hoping to stave off a drop in beach attendance like when “Jaws” hit theaters in 1975.

The tactic comes seven years after Morris Kramer, an environmentalist from Atlantic Beach, called for the creation of a government-run shark alert system for Long Island – a call that fell on deaf ears. “I just don’t wanna see an incident,” he told the Long Island Press in 2011. “I hope and pray I’m wrong, but if someone gets bit by a shark, we’ll be saying, ‘Hey, let’s get a shark alert system.’”

*State law prohibits taking Sandbar (Brown), Dusky, and Sand Tiger sharks, the three species of large non-Dogfish sharks that anglers will primarily encounter from shore. DEC also warns against dragging sharks ashore an putting the public at risk. Violations are punishable by fines or prison time.