History of Shark Attacks in New York

Ever since I watched ‘Jaws’ as a kid, the thought of being attacked by a shark while surfing does cross my mind from time to time.  I know its a ridiculous thought as I have much better odds of getting hit by a car or bitten by a rabid dog.   My very trusted source Wikipedia states that the odds of getting attacked by a shark in United States is 1 in 11.5 million.  So, what the hell am I worried about??

It’s funny, the topic almost always comes up when someone finds out I am a surfer.   I inevitably get the “yeah, but aren’t you afraid of sharks?!?”.    I always answer with an emphatic ‘No!’ and go on to tell them there are no sharks in the water.  However, the question I always end up asking myself when I’m bobbing up and down on my board is ‘Do I know what I’m talking about??’.  Our fears about sharks are shaped by movies like Jaws and countless other films.   Who doesn’t like ‘Shark Week’?  So, I admit my fears may come from the same place but they are not so strong that they would ever stop me from swimming or surfing.  However, with that said, I decided to do a little research and find out a bit more regarding the history of shark attacks in New York.  I’m doing this for my own interest but thought it would be good to share with others.   I find the topic fascinating and I hope you will too.

Growing up in Long Island, I have spent a lot of time on the water whether it was clamming off my neighbors boat in the Great South Bay, spending my youth at Robert Moses, partying in Fire Island or the Hamptons, fishing off Captree or fishing on my friend’s Charter out of Orient Point.  As a youngster I had heard the stories regarding the big Great Whites or Makos caught off Montauk.   But, as I grew older I had heard that those days were over.  That many of those big fish were ‘fished out’.  Today, shark fishing tournaments are no longer for White Shark but for Mako.  And, in more recent years, they are barely bringing in any Mako.  My last shark fishing outing was off Montauk 2 years ago. We were going for Mako, but all we caught were Blue Sharks.   Threshers also seem to be out there and many tournaments include them in the rewards pool.

So, what sharks are out there off the coast of Long Island?  Are they man-eaters?  Let’s start by reviewing the species.  Below is a list of the top ten most dangerous sharks known to man:
1) Great White
2) Tiger Shark
3) Bull Shark
4) Oceanic Whitetip Shark
5) Copper Shark
6) Blue Shark
7) Blackfin Shark
8) Mako
9) Lemon Shark
10) Hammerhead Shark

The top four are responsible for a majority of unprovoked attacks/fatalities on man.  There is enough evidence out there that proves that 3 of those four species have and still can be found off the coast of Long Island.  One just needs to do a simple Google search to prove this.  Check out this recent article regarding a giant Tiger Shark that had been tagged to determine it’s patterns (http://www.sportfishingmag.com/news/big-tiger-shark-lurks-long-island).  As of August 2012, it was off the coast of Long Island!

Below are some statistics taken from the New York Fishing Records to prove the above statements:

Species  Weight Location Angler Date
Blue Shark 395 lbs 0 oz Atlantic Ocean Charlie Sanders 10/26/1996
Great White Shark 3450 lbs 0 oz Atlantic Ocean Don Braddick 8/6/1986
Mako Shark 1080 lbs 0 oz Atlantic Ocean James Melanson 8/26/1979
Thresher Shark 614 lbs 0 oz Atlantic Ocean Joe Calandra 10/12/1994
Tiger Shark 1087 lbs 0 oz Atlantic Ocean Ken Rafferty 7/23/1986

I noticed that there was no record for the Bull Shark so I set out to make sure that Bull Sharks could be found in New York.  See this video from 2010 where some dudes caught 2 baby bull sharks off the shore of Far Rockaway (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddCzP-F5_iM) .

And, for you surfers out there, according to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) the following species are the most common sharks that will venture into the surf zone along the East Coast.  Yes, I said “SURF ZONE”!
- BlackTip
- Bull
- Tiger
- Hammerhead

History of Attacks in New York

I quickly found out that there aren’t many attacks.  According to the Florida Museum of Natural History (http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu), there have been only 7 attacks in New York from 1670 to 2011 with no fatalities.  But, what does Florida know about attacks in New York?  Upon further research, I have found those number are simply not true.  The Shark Attack File (http://sharkattackfile.info) shows 23 attacks with 4 fatalities in  New York for roughly the same period and  The Global Shark Accident file counts 23 attacks with 4 fatalities as well.  What I liked about the the Global Shark Attack file is that it keeps actual details on each attack along with the origin of the report.  You can also download the file in Excel (see ‘incident log’ at http://www.sharkattackfile.net).  I’ve posted this file separately as well.

To summarize these findings by century, the report shows :

Decade # Attacks
1800-1809 1
1860-1869 3
1870-1879 3
1890-1899 2
1900-1909 1
1910-1919 2
1920-1929 1
1930-1939 1
1940-1949 1
1950-1959 4
1960-1961 2
2000-2009 1
2010-2012 1
Total Attacks: 23

Doing my own research, I was able to confirm many of the incidents that were reported in the above files.   Many of those reports can be found in the archive section of the New York Times.  Below are links to some of the more interesting articles I dug up:

- Henry Brice, 1864: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=950DE6DA143EE63BBC4952DFBE668383669FDE

- Peter Johnson Atttack 1865: http://www.nytimes.com/1865/09/17/news/fight-with-a-shark.html?scp=10&sq=shark+attack&st=p

- Catherine Beach 1894 : http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9F0CE3DB1730E033A25751C2A96E9C94659ED7CF

- Thomas McCann, 1920: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9C05EEDE1131E433A25756C1A9619C946195D6CF

Upon further research, I found that there were still a few stories out there that are absent from the incident file.  Perhaps the most famous incident of all is that of Anthony Van Corlaer.  This is supposedly the first reported shark attack in New York history that happened in 1642!  According to the legend, Peter Stuyvesant called on Corlaer to arouse the villages along the Hudson  and warn them of the incoming English troops.  It was a stormy night and Corlaer could not secure a ferry, so he attempted to swim across the river.  He died in the attempt and many believe he was taken by the bull sharks that were known to roam the waters there. The attack is memorialized to this day as there is an inlet between Manhattan and the Bronx named ‘Spuyten Duyvil’ referring to Corlaer’s attempt ‘in spite of the devil’.

I found one other post that was absent from the archives.  It was dated 1884.  A clammer, Stephen Rhyley was terrorized by a shark in Jamaica Bay but was unharmed.  Im not clear why that wouldn’t have made the list (http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9C0CE5DD1338E033A25753C2A96E9C94659FD7CF).

To summarize, you can see by the reports that the number of shark attacks are rare in New York especially in recent years.   The fact is, that many shark species have seriously declined in recent years.  I have read one study that showed that the number of Mako and Hammerhead sharks have declined by 89% since 1986 when these studies started.   So, there is proof that we have ‘fished out’ many of these species.  With that said, there are still sharks out there.  There have been many sightings in recent years.   Just last year (2011) in Cupsogue beach, there were several very large sharks swimming within feet of where beachgoers normally swim.  Reports said that some were up to 18 feet in length.  Mutilated seals washed ashore as well.  Just last year, I saw a large shark washed up on the West End 2 jetty.  So, there are still plenty of sightings.

So, has my research changed my mind?  Let me just say that the next time someone asks me if Im nervous about sharks I will still tell them no.  But, I can no longer say there are no sharks in the water.  This research was helpful and I feel more informed.   Unfortunately,  I now will be looking around in the water with a bit more uneasiness when I’m out there alone on my board.  I will leave you with the words of Walter Sculz Jr., the man that was chased by a Great White while kayaking in Cape Cod.  Szulc said that he had teased his daughter before the close encounter because she refused to go in the water out of fear of sharks. He tried to assure his daughter that odds were low that a shark would be lurking beneath the waves.  “I found the odds, and they’re not exactly as good as I thought”…

Walter Sculz Jr.

Walter Sculz Jr.

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2 Responses to History of Shark Attacks in New York

  1. James says:

    As a novice paddle boarder, new to the area, I’m looking for information with regards to shark activity on the Great South Bay. It’s my intention to board off the coast of Babylon.

    While there are no definite I know, is it safe? The water does stay shallow in most parts, and I believe that these present possibly ideal conditions for sharks to search for food. Any thoughts?

    J

  2. TP says:

    I must say that after reading the shark attack report posted on the SLI site I finally came up with one good reason for living in Kentucky – there are no sharks! Lots of cows and deer. And people with guns and missing teeth. But no sharks (just kidding about the missing teeth). Let’s face it, there are likely sharks swimming under you more than you would like to think. But we are too gamie. But I agree, there are lot more people driving under the influence! Having grown up in LI, I started surfing in high school and I never worried too much about the sharks. After moving to South Carolina, there seemed to be a lot more sightings of hammerheads and top water fins than I ever imagined. That’s why while in SC, we would surf in groups. I think some people thought it was safer. Others thought that if they saw there buddy get attacked that would give them time to swim to safety.

    There is a famous saying out there – Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved. And now living nearly 1100 miles from the coast I will say to those on the coast Love and Surf as well! And, yes, with sharks! Because they are out there. And I cant hit many waves here in the mid-west!

    Continue to do well!!! TP.

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