County introduces flagging system to warn swimmers
It must be shark week somewhere. The amount of shark sightings and numerous beach closings on Long Island’s seashores made the news as the summer unfolded.
The most buzz was created by a report of a lifeguard at Jones Beach being bit by a shark on July 26. He reported that he saw a fin and was left with an inch-long gash on his calf.
On Aug. 16, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran held her second shark-themed press conference at Nickerson Beach. A press release in advance gave the underlying cause:
“According to National Geographic, the recovery of shark prey species is leading to an increase in shark bites around the world, rising from 157 incidents between 1970 and 1979 to almost 800 between 2010 and 2019.”
Curran was joined by Tom Paladino, captain of the American Princess sightseeing boat, based in Brooklyn.
“Tom can personally attest to the increasing sightings, not just of various shark species, but all marine life around New York,” Curran said. “There is some good news in this. Because the waters are cleaner, we are seeing the resurgence of so many species coming back. That’s the good news. However, there have been 26 confirmed shark sightings so far this year here in Nassau County. That is six more than we had for the entire summer last year. And this summer obviously is not over yet.”
She added, “We just this morning had two shark sightings in Jones Beach. These have all been confirmed sightings where sharks were spotted close to swimmers or swimming areas while lifeguards have been on duty—and that’s during the day. So while it’s true that shark attacks are still very rare, we cannot ignore the fact that over the past two years we’ve been seeing more sharks coming closer to shore.”
Curran also mentioned the area’s growing seal population, especially gray seals that are sharks’ natural prey.
At the press conference, Curran introduced a shark warning system for county-owned Nickerson Beach.
“After a shark is spotted anywhere along Nassau’s coast, a flag will be hoisted and will remain for at least 24 hours in order to alert swimmers that they should be extra vigilant,” Curran said. “The flag will be positioned near the entrance of the beach, along with any other pertinent locations that our parks department deems necessary. We’re not the first to do this. This system is [being used] in Massachusetts and Maine as well. Many beachgoers and lifeguards up in Maine have been reporting upticks in shark sightings, especially compared to a few years ago.”
She added, “Our goal is not to scare people, but we do have an obligation to warn our residents and our visitors how to avoid danger. So these include steps like staying close to the shore, swimming in groups, removing any shiny objects or jewelry that could look like scales glinting in the sunlight. And also avoid swimming at dawn and at dusk, which are prime feeding times for sharks.”
Paladino said he’s in the water 200, 250 days a year, and noted that the waters off Long Island are prime whale watching areas.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in sharks and the reason is there is an increase in everything—more whales, more sharks, more birds. The waters are getting cleaner, they’re getting warmer. And there’s an influx of bait for all these species to follow,” he added. “The sharks are on the increase and it’s all because of that ecosystem because the waters are getting better.”
Paladino noted that most of the sharks he’s seen in the last month are on the small side, 2- to 3-feet sharks. Curran mentioned sightings of sand sharks or thresher sharks, which are not known to attack humans.
Sharks, Paladino said, “do come in once in a while. It’s their environment. It’s an ocean that’s full of life. And anything is possible. What they’re doing here today with the warning flag system is fabulous. It’s great and safety is always first.”
Curran added that there have also been more aggressive species that have been identified, such as blacktip sharks and tiger sharks. She reminded reporters that a bull shark, a very aggressive species, was reeled in by a fisherman last summer at Nickerson Beach.
She was referring to TJ Minutillo of Manhasset, who snagged an 8-foot specimen estimated to be between 375 and 400 pounds. He released his catch after taking a few photos. He estimated that he has caught 300 sharks since he began big-game fishing.
“Most of the time they’re harmless,” Minutillo said of the uptick in sharks in the area. “But freak things happen sometimes.”
Curran said that police Marine Bureau and Aviation Bureau patrols have been enhanced.
“It’s good news in a way,” she affirmed. “Species are making a resurgence and we just want to remind everyone, when you go in the water, you are entering their homes. So you have to be respectful of them and be cautious and as careful as possible.”
She concluded, “Our goal, as always in local government, is to keep our residents safe.”
Jaws remains the foundational fiction of human encounters with sharks. And great whites lie at the roots of our fears. And yet, there are relatively few documented attacks by those apex predators against humans.
Paladino has spent decades and countless hours on the waters, and he told Anton Media Group that he’s seen only two great whites, about 30 to 40 miles off shore.
“People should be aware, but they should enjoy themselves,” Paladino said of beachgoers, and with a nod at the warning flag he added, “And something like this is only a plus.”