Chances are excellent that another great white shark, or some frightening relatives, will appear again off the Jersey coast in the next several weeks.
In fact, a white shark nursery where mothers are giving birth to pups isn’t far off the coast of the New Jersey-New York border, according to Ocearch, the research group that tags and pings sharks and that tracked the 880-pound “Freya” as she cruised past the Atlantic City casinos on June 18.
But hold the Jaws theme, implore shark researchers: Rather than fearful, we should all be grateful for these finned marvels of the sea. They are doing the planet a great service. They might even be playing a small role in mitigating climate change.
Yes, it’s not as though they are all gums: Shark attacks have a deep history, notably a series of them 105 years ago at the Jersey Shore; and few organisms are more feared and reviled. However, sharks have far more to fear from humans than vice versa.
In fact, the researchers say, the annual ratio of sharks killed by humans to humans killed by sharks might be as high as 100,000,000-1. That is not a typo.
“Things like a big surf and riptides are the biggest dangers at the beach,” said Michael Heithaus, a leading shark ecologist and behavioral expert at Florida International University. “Encounters with sharks are incredibly rare.”
The odds of getting killed by a coconut falling on your head are greater than a fatal shark attack, said David Angotti, founder of Floridapanhandle.com, a tourism research group.
In terms of bites, “One is more likely to get bitten by another human being on a New York subway,” said Robbie Roemer, science program coordinator for Ocearch.
Last year, the number of fatalities worldwide was unusually high — 10; the average is four — but attacks were way down, and that might have been COVID-19-related, according to data compiled by the Florida Museum.
Around here, data assembled by New Jersey’s Shark Research Institute showed only three verified human-shark encounters at the Jersey Shore in the last decade, resulting in only one hand injury.
Yet the waves of shark fears are ever swelling.
“I think it is a combination of what we hear in the media when there are bad attacks — we get the impression that they are more common than they really are — and feeling very much helpless when we are in the water,” Heithaus said.
In fact, in a poll with 1,000 respondents, more than four times as many people said they would rather be involved in a 70-mph car crash than suffer a shark attack, according to the Floridapanhandle group.
Peter Benchley’s immensely popular 1974 novel Jaws and the subsequent all-time blockbuster movie a year later certainly are suspects. However, they mined a mother lode of shark fears stoked by outsize tales, magazine articles, and, yes, very definitely to some extent real incidents.
By far the most infamous local incident occurred at the Jersey Shore in 1916 that merited a reference in Benchley’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s movie and was the subject of a book by former Inquirer staff writer Michael Capuzzo.
In a span of less than two weeks, shark attacks within 70 miles of each other killed five people, starting with July 1 in Beach Haven. Five days later, a hotel bellman was killed while swimming 100 yards offshore at Spring Lake.
The next attacks occurred 10 miles inland in Matawan Creek, claiming the life of a boy, 11, and a 24-year-old who went looking for him and was mauled as witnesses watched from the creek banks.
Whether the attacks were the work of one shark or more than one has never been resolved. Nor is it known for certain which species was, or were, involved. It is known that nothing like that ever happened again around here.
What good are sharks?
The waters of the world host more than 500 species of sharks, ranging in size from “the palm of your hand to a school bus,” Heithaus said, with some — particularly the all-star predators such as tigers, hammerheads, and whites — playing more significant environmental roles than others.
Florida International University researchers found that tiger sharks, for example, are vital to protecting sea grass from overgrazing by sea turtles and sea cows by eating them or scaring them away.
» READ MORE: The most dangerous predator in the water | Opinion
Sea grass not only provides habitats for shellfish and other fish that might someday wind up on a table near you, but also traps carbon that otherwise would escape into the atmosphere, Heithaus said.
“Sharks can play other roles like moving nutrients from one area to another to support the growth of other organisms,” he added.
Just how many sharks are out there doing this work remains unclear. “We don’t really have a good estimate of the population of the world’s sharks,” he said. But best estimates range from 1 billlion to 1.5 billion — and falling.
What good are sharks II?
Sharks are common quarry for sports fishermen, and a favored target for commercial fisheries. Shark skins have been used to make boots, handbags, wallets, and watch straps, according to the International Humane Society.
Other products include shark liver oil, said to be rich in nutrients and healing powers, and shark teeth are marketed as souvenirs and ornaments.
Shark meat is popular in some parts of the world, but researchers say that one of the greatest threats to the population is the practice of “finning,” in which a fin is sliced off, and the rest of the shark’s body is thrown back into the water.
The United States has outlawed finning, but among the countries that haven’t outlawed it are China, Japan, France, and, yes, Finland, according to the research institute. The U.S. Senate earlier this month passed a bill that would ban importing fins, and it awaits House action.
The fins are valuable: Shark-fin soup is considered a delicacy; however, being that the fin is the shark’s rudder and GPS system, shark specialists say that its removal is a death sentence, and sharks typically bleed to death or suffocate.
When sharks do bite humans, it’s almost always a case of mistaken identity, say the Ocearch experts, and if sharks viewed humans as a delicacy, no one would be in the water and lifeguards would be out of work.
Right now the warm sea-surface temperatures probably would be to the liking of the average cold-blooded shark, said former National Weather Service marine specialist Jim Eberwine, now an emergency management official in Absecon.
On occasion, the Ocearch folks warn, sharks do come close to the shoreline, and because they don’t have hands, the only way they can taste-test is to take a bite.
If you see a shark in the water, Florida biologist and shark expert George Burgess recommends the obvious as Option 1: Get out if you can. If the shark comes close, hit it in the nose (easy for him to say). If the shark bites, poke the eyes or the gills on the side with your fingers (ditto).
But, yes, all things considered, we prefer Option 1.