Throughout the month of August, local beaches have been closed to swimming on several occasions because of sharks sighted in the waters just beyond the breakers.
Large schools of baitfish have been drawing more sharks into shore than usual—or, at least, making them more visible than usual—and it has led some adventure-seeking anglers to target the sharks for sport. It’s a practice that has caused a stir of equal parts awe and apprehension for some beachgoers—and also a stir of outrage by shark conservationists and fisheries authorities.
Most of the sharks seen from the beaches this summer are sandbar sharks, more commonly called brown sharks. They are typically relatively small sharks, about 3 or 4 feet in length and weighing 40 to 50 pounds. Some larger sand tiger sharks—most recognizable as the snaggle-toothed denizens of most aquariums—also are being seen, as well as the odd dusky shark.
All three species have been protected by federal and state law since 2008, because their populations are thought to be very low, and they may not be legally caught.
“These are long-lived and slow-to-mature sharks—it can take them a decade or more to become sexually mature,” said Greg Metzger, a marine science teacher at Southampton High School and leader of the Long Island Shark Collaborative, a consortium of scientists studying sharks in the coastal waters off the East End. “Their basic biology makes them very vulnerable to over-fishing.”
The federal laws protecting them also makes it illegal to target those species of shark—which Mr. Metzger and other shark scientists say anyone fishing for sharks from the beach is doing, since they are generally the only species that come into the surf zone regularly. If the sharks are caught accidentally, it’s illegal to handle them in any way, other than to facilitate their immediate release.
Picking up the sharks or sitting on their backs, holding their mouths agape, for photos, which Mr. Metzger said he sees examples of frequently on social media, is an offense that can be prosecuted.
A spokesperson for the State Department of Environmental Conservation said that publicly shared photos can be grounds for issuing a summons for a violation, though enforcement officers make such judgments on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Metzger, who is an avid fisherman of non-protected species, said he understands the thrill that shore anglers are seeking but believes they should put concern for the sharks ahead of entertainment.
Sharks caught by anglers on boats can be easily released when discovered to be a prohibited species without being taken from the water, whereas pulling a shark up onto the sand, even if only to remove a hook, compounded with the stress of the fight, can be fatal for the shark, even up to an hour after it is released seemingly healthy.
“You are potentially killing a protected species for a photo,” he said. “Come on.”