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Sharks and the City (Think ‘Jaws,’ Not Wall Street)

| July 11, 2011 6:00 AM

The New York Aquarium has launched an initiative to study sand tiger sharks and other species in the New York Bight. Flickr/Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk.

New Yorkers know from sharks when it comes to Wall Street, but what about the ones in our waters?

More than two dozen species of sharks swim in the New York Bight, a 15,000-square-mile region stretching from Montauk, N.Y., to Cape May, N.J., as well as the waters of Long Island Sound. They run the gamut from massive basking sharks and fierce great whites to the relatively mild sand tiger sharks, long-nosed blue sharks, tall-finned sandbar sharks and many in between.

Sharks are nothing new to New York waters, we’ve just forgotten them. While researching my book, “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,” I discovered a few different accounts of first-hand encounters between the city’s denizens and sharks.

The New York Bight stretches from Montauk, N.Y., to Cape May, N.J. Photo by NYC Office of Emergency Management.

In August 1869 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on an 8-foot shark that washed up into a pool of water near 15th Street and Hamilton Avenue, describing how bystanders had killed it and dragged it onto dry land. According to the paper, “the animal was skinned by some boys, the skin being said to make excellent sand paper.”

In the 1950s, Frank Mundus earned the moniker “Monster Man” for the massive sharks he caught off Long Island, and other fishermen followed his lead.

Today, siting a shark on a New York area beach is not uncommon. In 2007, Coney Island lifeguard Marius Mironescu rescued a 2-foot baby sandshark from frightened swimmers who wanted to kill it, the New York Daily News reported. But the shark proved smarter than Mironescu anticipated: as soon as the lifeguard started swimming away with the creature in hand, the shark revived and tried to bite him.

Researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium are working to better understand and track these creatures as they traverse the area’s waters. The Aquarium will open a major exhibition featuring the region’s sharks in 2015 called “Ocean Wonders.” In the meantime it has launched the New York Seascape initiative, which will study sand tiger sharks as well as some of the other marine species that depend on the area for crucial habitat. Scientists will track the animals’ movements with acoustic and satellite tracking devices to better understand their migration patterns.

Shark Species in New York Waters

Jon Dohlin, director of the New York Aquarium, said that even though scientists recognize the Bight’s ecological value, they don’t fully comprehend how its different components work.

Author: Juliet Eilperin
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication Date: June 2011

“We know this is a diverse ecosystem out there. We know it’s got this tremendously interesting qualities,” Dohlin said in an interview. “But there’s not a lot of really good data on how the habitat is used.”

Researchers know that sand tigers have their pups in Delaware Bay and swim from the southeast Atlantic up to Rhode Island and Cape Cod during the summer. But as Dohlin observed, “We don’t really know that whole movement is about. What we really want to do is get in there and start answering those questions, or get the data that can help answer those questions.”

Conservation scientists plan not only to tag sharks but also to establish a listening station right off the Coney Island Coast in between the Rockaways, which will detect the movements of animals tagged by other teams that conduct research along the East Coast.

When Dohlin tells New Yorkers how many species of sharks are nearby, they’re initially alarmed. “It’s human nature,” he explained. “Their initial response is ‘Oh my god, that’s terrible.’”

But once he and his colleagues explain how sharks keep the ocean in balance as one of its top predators, they rethink their attitude toward these toothy aquatic neighbors. “It is something that people start to get.”

Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post. She reports on science, policy and politics in areas including climate change, oceans and air quality. Her latest book, “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,” was released in June.

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