AVALON — Local resident Steve Clark was 30 miles off Townsend’s Inlet last week trying to catch a mako shark when suddenly he came across something far more exciting.
As soon as Clark saw the trademark sharp, serrated triangular teeth he knew. It was a great white shark and it was a big one.
“It was huge and absolutely magnificent. It just glided under the boat. The boat is 10½ feet wide and the shark stuck out two to three feet on either side when it swam under the boat,” said Clark.
His estimate of 15 or 16 feet would make it one of the largest ever seen on the East Coast. The record is a 17.26-foot female landed in Canada in 1983. His son Steve Clark II caught it all on video.
“We’ve seen several in the last few years. We were able to take pictures this time so people would believe us,” said Clark.
The sighting fits the science. Marine biologists say the great white shark population is increasing. Clark is a regular shark fisherman but said he has seen five or six great whites in the last five years. What used to be a rarity even for shark fishermen is becoming much more common.
More great whites
A new study on great white sharks, the most comprehensive ever done, using records going back to 1800, shows the population of these apex predators is on the rise. A harvesting ban put in place in 1997 is working. Fishermen can no longer boat them and must cut the line immediately after hooking them.
Before the ban, the great white population had declined as much as 89 percent as recreational fishermen sought the jaws as trophies and commercial fishermen harvested the fins for the Asian shark-fin soup market. The sharks landed had been getting smaller, which is a classic sign of overfishing.
That trend has been reversed with stocks slowly rising since 2000, said Tobey Curtis, the lead author of the study and a shark researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. The numbers are also rising in other areas, including South Africa, New Zealand and off the California coast.
“We’re probably getting back to the way things were before we showed up in North America, before the Pilgrims and the Colonial era. Over time you will hear about more of them,” Curtis said.
That should not cause any concern to ocean bathers. Curtis noted there have only been four fatalities from great whites on the East Coast in all of recorded history.
Curtis said the chance of getting hit by lightning, drowning, or getting into a car accident on the way to the beach is a larger risk.
“People shouldn’t be scared but should use common sense in the ocean. It’s a wild place and they should be cautious,” Curtis said.
The study is the first to show great whites follow a north to south migration pattern as they chase prey within their preferred water temperature range of 14 to 23 degrees centigrade (57.2 to 73.4 Fahrenheit). While they winter off Florida, they spend the summers between New Jersey and Massachusetts, where 66 percent of confirmed sightings have occurred. The study identifies the New York Bight, in waters less than 50 meters deep, as a possible great white shark nursery. These are mostly younger sharks eating fish such as bluefish, bunker, smooth dogfish, sea robins, skates and other fish.
“Juveniles tend to eat a lot more fish. They transition to marine mammals when they get 10 feet long,” Curtis said.
The larger ones tend to eat seals, porpoises and feed on whale carcasses farther north off New England and into Canada. Clark theorizes his shark thought the white bottom on his boat looked like a dead whale when looking up from the depths.
Once it surfaced, it was very inquisitive. Clark said it did not act hostile, though it ate their bait bucket and bit one of the three engines. He said it did show some hunting behavior such as circling the boat and sticking her (it was a female) head out of the water several times and looking around.
Clark grew restless as his son, his friend, and their two fiancees, got a little too close.
“I got concerned they were treating it like a zoo. The shark was very calm but you don’t want to be leaning over the side of the boat,” said Clark.
The 1975 movie “Jaws” led to a surge in great white landings as trophy seekers sought the largest set of jaws. The study found the highest likelihood of catching a great white was actually off New Jersey, though the East Coast range extends from the Gulf of Mexico-Caribbean Sea to Newfoundland.
Clark’s sighting fit the water temperature, depth and location that great whites prefer this time of year. The study sets the median depth for great whites at 30 meters (98.5 feet) but larger sharks will use deeper and colder waters. Great whites can maintain a body temperature higher than the surrounding water temperature.
“They are partially warm-blooded. They can thermo-regulate and that allows them to go to Canada,” said Curtis.
The larger sharks tend to handle cold better and this could be why most of the great whites off New Jersey tend to be younger than the ones in New England and Canada. The area also offers few predators, though tiger, dusky and some other sharks could eat them.
They migrate up from the south beginning in April as water temperatures rise above 14 degrees centigrade. The study defines South Carolina to Maryland as a “migratory corridor” between two feeding grounds. The sharks will follow that corridor back to Florida starting in November.
A 73-year-old Jaws
The NOAA study comes on the heels of another study published in January that found great whites may have one of the longer life spans for a fish.
They live much longer than previously thought. One shark tested using a new radiocarbon method was found to be 73 years old.
Great whites were traditionally aged by counting growth bands on their vertebrae but after sexual maturity growth slows and ring counting becomes unreliable.
The detonation of nuclear bombs acts as a “time stamp” in the environment and carbon 14 from the atmospheric fallout moves up the marine food chain. NOAA and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were able to use this to get reliable ages on eight species. One previous study had not found an age older than 23. The eight specimens produced ages of 6, 9, 14, 21, 32, 40, 44, and 73. This is leading marine scientists to rethink the age of great whites.
Previous studies have shown great whites can aggregate near the beaches but they are usually juveniles feeding on fish. Mature great whites rarely aggregate unless feeding on a dead whale.
In August 1964 in Sandy Hook, just one-quarter mile from a popular bathing beach, scientists caught 10 young great whites but did not publicize the catch “in the interest of public relations.” The concentration was traced to anglers landing bluefish nearby and throwing the heads and entrails overboard. Bluefish parts were found in their stomachs, according to the NOAA study published in 1984.
“Although in this case an opportunistic food source may have had a concentrating effect, the distribution of young white sharks in the inshore zone in the Mid-Atlantic Bight is not unusual and is more likely influenced by other factors including the distribution of natural prey,” the study concluded.
A study of the stomach contents of 54 young great whites caught off New Jersey and Long Island found their diet was mostly fish.
Evidence for young great whites in this region is not new. One study that looked at landings of young great whites (less than 200 centimeters or 6-feet, 6.7 inches) found that 130 of the 135 caught were landed in Mid-Atlantic waters.
Clark’s sighting remains unusual because of the size of the fish.
When she arrived, there were no other fish around.
“We were trying to catch makos and I think she scared them all away,” Clark said.
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