Cleaner, warmer waters bringing more marine life to NY shores

It’s good news-bad news as sharks, dolphins, whales and turtles swarm New York City.

July 21, 2022 Katie Honan and Samantha Maldonado, THE CITY
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Beaches across New York have been closed this week to swimming after sightings of sharks, including the entire stretch of Rockaway Beach in Queens on Tuesday, according to the Parks Department.

On Wednesday, the beaches were open for swimming as temperatures hit the high 90s. There had not been any shark sightings by late afternoon.

But sharks and other marine life are getting closer to the city’s shores in part because of cleaner and warmer oceans, experts say.

Sharks were first spotted on the eastern end of Rockaway Beach on Sunday, and a 20-block stretch was closed for around two hours, officials said.

On Tuesday, more sharks were spotted across the beach – including one shark that jumped in the air and did a spin on Beach 121st Street – which prompted the full closure. On Wednesday, in the Suffolk County town of Quogue, a dead juvenile great white shark washed up on the beach, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. It was later carried back out to sea.

Long Beach and other Long Island beaches have also sporadically been closed this summer, and two people were bitten earlier this month in separate shark incidents on Long Island.

According to experts, sharks swimming closer to urban shores is a sign of both environmental progress and climate change.

Typically urban areas have been too polluted and overfished for sharks to thrive. But Chris Paparo, manager of Marine Sciences Center of Stony Brook University, pointed out that shark presence indicates better stewardship of the ocean.

“Seeing sharks in our local ecosystem is extremely important, and it’s a sign that the environment around us is healthy,” he said in a series of Twitter videos.

A lifeguard watches over swimmers at Rockaway Beach, July 20, 2022.
A lifeguard watches over swimmers at Rockaway Beach, July 20, 2022. Photo: Katie Honan/THE CITY

Neil Hammerschlag, director of the University of Miami’s Shark Research and Conservation Program, noted that sharks are cold-blooded and rely on warm water to support their metabolism.

“With long-term climate change and also increasing heat waves, we are seeing some species show greater residency in those areas that may have been historically too cold,” he told The CITY.

Ocean temperatures in the Northeast are on the rise faster compared to the ocean globally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We need to do things to be more shark-smart about how we use the water,” Hammerschlag said, suggesting people avoid swimming alone, during dawn, dusk or at night, or in places with “unusual” fish activity. “Fortunately, people are just not on the sharks’ menu.”

Shark network

Beachgoer Thomas Troisi said he’s been swimming at Rockaway for more than 60 years and it’s only in recent years he’s seen so much marine life. He has spent the last 12 summers living in Rockaway, and is in Manhattan and mainland Queens during the colder months, he said.

“It’s just a joy when you sit out on the beach and watch the dolphins come back or watch a whale come jumping — it doesn’t happen that often, but when it does happen, it’s breathtaking,” he said. “We really didn’t have that growing up because the pollution in the water was so terrible.”

When beachgoers or lifeguards report a shark, the Police Department then confirms with aerial surveillance, the Parks Department said. A spokesperson for the Police Department said its aviation unit additionally “conducts random and routine beach and shoreline surveys for shark activity.”

The NYPD is also in a “shark communication network” with other authorities that watch beaches from the Hamptons to Sandy Hook, N.J., reporting observations from sharks in the water to other things washing up.

Maxine Montello, a program director for the New York Marine Rescue Center in Riverhead, noted that beach goers share waters with all sorts of marine life, including sharks, turtles, seals, whales and dolphins.

“People are outside more, people are looking for these animals — and there’s this overlap of great resources and healthier water,” she said.

“Our waters are much better than they used to be,” Montello added. “We’re having an increase of general resources — food, shelters for these animals, a unique blend of marine life coming back into our waters.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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