2018-08-23 / Front Page

Experts: Cape Cod shark sightings not a concern for Narragansett Bay

BY RYAN GIBBS


This 6-foot great white shark was caught less than a mile from Misquamicut State Beach last month by fishermen trying to catch squid. It was released back into the ocean. MICHAEL LORELLO FACEBOOK This 6-foot great white shark was caught less than a mile from Misquamicut State Beach last month by fishermen trying to catch squid. It was released back into the ocean. MICHAEL LORELLO FACEBOOK Following an underwater attack in Cape Cod last week that was dubbed a real-life version of “Jaws,” local swimmers anxiously are asking themselves a question: Could a shark strike in Narragansett Bay?

Fortunately, that’s not likely, according to experts.

Just 80 miles away as the crow flies, a 61-year-old New Yorker made international news when he was bitten by a shark while swimming at Long Nook Beach in Truro. The man remains in the hospital for injuries to his torso and hip, although he has been upgraded from serious to fair condition.

The incident was the first shark bite reported off Cape Cod since 2012, forcing the beach’s closure to swimming. However, it has yet to be confirmed whether the shark was a great white.

Jason McNamee, chief of marine resources at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, is hesitant to label the Truro encounter a shark “attack.” He did not want to speculate on the animal’s intent, but believed it could have been examining the swimmer as an unfamiliar shape in the water.

“I don’t think that shark was actually attacking the person as if it was attacking a seal and wanted to eat it,” said McNamee, whose office is at Fort Wetherill. “I think what happened is it went up to investigate what that person was. It’s just sort of not-very-nice handshake from a shark. But that’s just conjecture on my part.”

Despite their prominence in popular culture, notably Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster film, McNamee said shark attacks in the North Atlantic are rare. In six decades of data collection, the state has no record of a shark attack in Narragansett Bay.

“There has not been a recorded attack in Rhode Island state waters since people started recording that type of thing,” he said.

Several species, however, are occasional visitors. Spiny dogfish are the most common. Also, sand tiger sharks, blue sharks and porbeagles are reported sporadically, but do not typically travel far into the bay. As for swimmers at Mackerel Cove, Fort Getty and East Ferry, McNamee has not heard of a single shark sighting close to Conanicut Island.

Lisa Natanson, a research biologist for the Apex Predators Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Program, which is headquartered in Narragansett, said white sharks found inside the bay typically are younger than their larger relatives that appear around Cape Cod.

“We’ve seen several small ones caught in nets in the bay,” she said. “It depends on the year. Some years we get a couple reports, and some years we get no reports.”

McNamee said the most recent fully grown great white reported was three years ago. Instead, the sightings in Rhode Island are just outside the bay, like Point Judith and the south coast. For example, the recent capture of a smaller specimen in those waters has garnered regional attention.

A 6-foot great white shark was caught alive in late July by a group of fishermen about three-quarters of a mile from Westerly’s Misquamicut State Beach. The men were fishing for squid when the shark inadvertently was caught in their net. After taking pictures and video of the animal, the fishermen released it back into the ocean using a rope and chain.

“Between New York and Massachusetts, which of course we’re right in the middle of, they catch everywhere from juveniles up to 16-feet white sharks,” McNamee said. “It’s reasonable to believe that in this entire New England area, there’s a continuous population.”

On the rare occasions when large sharks do enter Narragansett Bay, McNamee said it is during the late fall and winter after seals start migrating into the area.

“If larger sharks are up in the bay going after things like seals, it’s during a time of year where there’s not a lot of people out and about,” he said. “It’s the time of year where the seals are just making their way into the bay, but a lot of people are not out on boats.”

Great white sharks are more common in Cape Cod because of the considerably larger seal population than Narragansett Bay. McNamee said it has been a fairly active year for sharks on the hook-shaped peninsula, which has led to lifeguards practicing evacuation procedures. Typically, swimming will be prohibited for about an hour while scientists fly over the water to track the animal.

If a swimmer sees what they believe to be a shark, both McNamee and Natanson recommend evacuating the water and alerting lifeguards. McNamee also noted some harmless animals can be mistaken for sharks because of their prominent dorsal fins, such as dolphins and ocean sunfish.

“Wherever you swim, there’s going to be sharks, more than likely,” Natanson said. “The temperature preference for people and sharks overlap. Whenever you’re in the water, you should be aware of what’s around you, but I wouldn’t be too worried about it in the bay.”

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