Ghost Nets and Disease Harm Fire Island’s Marine Life

It was a seemingly normal night on Thursday, June 16, in Seaview when life-long Fire Island visitor Jillian King arrived on the shore. King was staying the night at a friend’s home and excitedly went to the deck to take in the view but was met with a pungent scent of dead fish. In all the years of visiting her family’s old homes in Ocean Bay Park and Seaview, King said she never smelled anything like it. After looking out to the shore, King saw what appeared to be a shark laying on the sand. Plagued with curiosity, she set off to the beach to explore.

“As I walked, I realized there were a number of dead sharks along the way,” King said. “From this house to what I call the jetty, is probably less than 10 streets. I documented 15 dead sharks and several dead seagulls. I was thinking, this is crazy and this is a lot of death.”

As King walked from Midway Avenue to the jetty in Ocean Beach, she came across four dead seagulls and 15 dead sharks ranging from 4 to 5 feet long. Appalled by the sights and smells, King notified the Fire Island National Seashore Parks Department. Chief Ranger Erik Westpfahl reassured King that everything was under control and being monitored by the department.

The following day, King took a second walk of almost 2 miles from L Street in Seaview to Sailors Haven. Once again, King spotted several dead birds and sharks strewn across the shore. Her concern grew when she stumbled upon dead sharks tangled in a pink fishing net by the lifeguard chair. Scared this was a marine life crime of some sort, King contacted the Fire Island rangers again.

“There was an enormous net with over 40 sharks and several other sea creatures dead in it,” King said. “I just wondered if this was illegal and if this was something they would revoke the fisherman’s license.”

Despite the appearance of a crime scene, Nicholas Clemons, Fire Island National Seashore’s chief of interpretation, education and volunteers, explained it was a typical accident that occurred among fishermen, nets and sharks.

“Sharks and men are going for the same source,” Clemons said of the prey fish migrating at this time of year. “Sharks at time get caught in these gill nets. They may end up getting injured or getting caught in the net and end up dying and washing up on the beach. This is more common this time of year than in the winter months when they’re going to be further offshore.”

Clemons identified the sharks as species of dogfish shark, which are common along the Fire Island coast and waterways. These sharks were most likely following their prey and got tangled from what is known as a “ghost net.” The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) defines a ghost net as, “a fishing net that’s been lost or abandoned in the ocean.”

“It’s difficult to find [the fishermen],” Clemons said. “These nets may have been dislodged before they even realized that a portion of the netting had broken off and you are miles and miles away and can’t recover it.”

While discarded fishing gear can sometimes be the result of an accident, the damage ghost nets are capable of is not taken lightly by ocean conservationists. In a study from 2020, the WWF indicated that every year fishers discard between 500 thousand and one million tons of ghost fishing equipment. Fishing nets and lines are made of nylon and other plastic compounds that only breakdown into smaller pieces of plastic, which are easily mistaken for food by marine animals. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries reported that ghost nets also can cover and damage coral reefs.

Sharks can be entangled and stuck in ghost nets for several weeks to years, resulting in injuries, starvation or death from exhaustion. The sharks on Seaview’s shores spotted by King most likely became tangled in the ghost nets, washed up on shore and were buried deep under the sand. After the sand eroded, the deceased sharks and fish were unearthed.

The Fire Island National Seashore Parks Department is allowing nature to take its course as the animals decompose and are eaten by birds. The Fire Island rangers will then remove the remains and net from the shore and no one is being punished for this occurrence.

As for the deceased seagulls, this was caused by the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). HPAI has impacted and caused death of wild birds and other animals in North America as of November 2021. This disease is being closely monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Department of Agriculture. HPAI has reached the shores of Fire Island, resulting in the death of many seagulls, such as the ones King spotted on her walks.

People should avoid touching and having contact with the bird and dead seagulls on the shore since HPAI is classified as potentially zoonotic. This means there can be a disease transmission to humans. However, it poses a low risk to humans and there is only one case of HPAI reported in a human currently.

Any birds or wild animals that appear sick, injured or dead should be left alone to avoid the risk of disease transmission. To report a sick or dead bird or animal on the beach, people can contact the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, who are monitoring the spread of HPAI.

The timeline for the sharks’ removal and length of the bird plague is currently unknown, but the scene should not deter beachgoers from swimming in the ocean. This is not a sign of an increase in sharks in the ocean and is a common occurrence that can be seen most summers, and relaxing on the sand or surfing in the waves remain safe for beachgoers.

“Nothing like that would ever stop me from swimming,” King said. “I have surfed with sharks, seals, dolphins and around a whale. I’m sharing the ocean with things that actually live there. If you see whales or dolphins, it’s usually very joyful and quite an exciting event.”

All lovers of the ocean can help protect marine life to keep the ocean as a safe place for everyone to enjoy by donating to or volunteering with groups such as the WWF or the Global Ghost Gear Initiative and the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI).

To advocate for more sustainable fishing practices, the WWF recommends engaging with fishing gear industries and government representatives. Those who fish can contribute to reducing the threats to our ocean life by reporting lost fishing gear.

The WWF also works to remove nets and advocated for trackable fishing gear to dissuade fishers from abandoning nets in the ocean. This would help prevent any carelessness and innocent accidents, keeping ghost nets out of the water and sharks off Fire Island’s sand so the marine life can safely and healthily live in the ocean.

“I just wondered, is this illegal?” King said. “Was this something that will revoke their fishing license because they did this? A lot of people like sharks, you know, they’re supposed to be in the water because that’s where they live. You don’t get to kill them all because you were fishing.”