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Aug 26, 2016 3:57 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

'Shark Men' Say Waters Off Hamptons A Nursery For Great White Sharks

Ocearch Captain Brett McBride with one of the baby great whites the crew caught off Montauk this week and fitted with satellite tracking tags. R. Snow/Ocearch
Aug 30, 2016 1:57 PM

After returning from two weeks of fishing just a few miles off Montauk, researchers from the famed shark tagging and research program, Ocearch, say that the waters off the South Fork appear to be a nursery of sorts for baby great white sharks.

Over five days last week, with the help of the Southampton High School science program, the crew of the expedition’s namesake 126-foot research ship Ocearch caught and tagged nine baby great whites, each between 50 and 75 pounds and 4 to 5 feet long, as close as two miles off Montauk’s beaches.

One of the sharks was believed to be the youngest great white shark ever captured by scientists, at just 50 pounds—not much larger than the size at which great white sharks are believed to be born.

The movements of each of the newly tagged sharks can now be followed on the Ocearch mobile app, Global Shark Tracker.

All of the sharks the researchers caught and adorned with satellite tracking antennas were young-of-the-year, most still carrying the scars from their umbilical cords, according to the Ocearch’s owner and expedition founder, Chris Fischer. The discovery, Mr. Fischer said, is an exciting one for shark researchers.

“It really shocked us,” said Mr. Fischer. “We thought we’d catch one if we were lucky, and to see the volume we saw in just one area in, basically, one week, it’s just really amazing.”

The Ocearch program, which was the subject of the NatGeo network’s television series “Shark Men,” has led 25 expeditions, from Cape Cod to South Africa to Mexico, and tagged hundreds of great whites and other species of large sharks throughout the world to help scientists understand shark habits and boost their protection. Marine scientists have said that if large apex predators like sharks are thinned by overfishing, smaller species will proliferate and disrupt the food chain, threatening populations of important and valuable food and gamefish species.

Fishermen and marine biologists have suspected for decades that the waters south of Long Island may serve as a de facto nursery for baby great whites.

Cape Cod has long been an infamous gathering area for large adult great whites that converge there to feed on seals in late summer—and force beach closures on a regular basis. But younger sharks need smaller bait to feed on, and the abundant schools of bunker, mackerel and bluefish off Long Island are a prime prey buffet for hungry young sharks.

Adult whites have rarely been spotted near shore off Long Island—there has never been a recorded attack on a human by any shark species on Long Island—but juveniles are caught with relative frequency by fishermen working close to shore or even inside Gardiners Bay.

Conventional wisdom among shark researchers is that whites in the northwestern Atlantic are born in late spring or early summer, somewhere off the mid-Atlantic coast.

Mr. Fischer credited Southampton High School science teacher Greg Metzger with having helped the crew hone in on the presence of juvenile great whites in the waters off the South Fork and spurring the expedition. Mr. Metzger and a collection of former Southampton College marine science students formed the Long Island Shark Collaboration, an independent research cooperative that last year was the first to catch and tag a juvenile great white, about four miles off Hampton Bays.

“We’ve always known that Long Island held these little white sharks, so what we’ve been doing the last few years is documenting confirmed encounters,” said Mr. Metzger, who has taught at Southampton High School for 16 years. “What we found is that there is a progression, west to east, over the course of the summer. In May and June, it seems as though [they] are off Nassau County, and in July and August, they move past Shinnecock to Montauk.”

Last summer, Mr. Metzger hooked one of the small sharks aboard his personal boat and attached a pop-up satellite tag to the fish. The tag tracked the shark’s movements for more than a month, during which time it slowly wandered about 225 miles south to the waters off Virginia.

The information shared by the Long Island Shark Collaboration—which partners with Dr. Gregory Skomal of the White Shark Conservancy and Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, Toby Curtis of the National Oceanographic and Atmostpheric Administration and the South Fork Natural History Museum—helped the Ocearch crew zero in on the sharks off Montauk. The ship spent the week of August 19 to 25 within sight of Ditch Plains, fishing amid the fleet of recreational boats drifting for fluke and black sea bass.

Mr. Metzger hooked one of the small whites last week, handing it off to the Ocearch crew to lead it onto the hydraulic platform aboard the ship, where scientific tests are done and the tags are fitted while water is flushed over the shark’s gills.

Each of the sharks caught was fitted with a permanent satellite tracking tag that will send its location to a satellite each time the fish’s dorsal fin breaks the ocean surface, and it should stay active for three to five years. With each “ping” from the tag, the shark’s location will be logged on the Global Shark Tracker app.

All nine of the tags in the young white sharks have pinged since their releases last week, each still in the waters off Long Island.

On the Global Shark Tracker app each shark is given a name to identify it. The seven sharks tagged this week that have been named thus far are Montauk, Hampton, Hudson, Gratitude, Paumanok, Gotham, Manhattan, Brunswick and Teddy.

The movements of some of the sharks Ocearch has tagged in past years have been followed for tens of thousands of miles over as long as four years. One of the sharks, a large female tagged off Cape Cod and named Mary Lee after Mr. Fisher’s mother, pops up frequently off Long Island and has more than 90,000 Twitter followers who are alerted every time her tag pings.

After spending the weekend in Montauk and hosting a lecture at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum on Saturday, the crew of the Ocearch is headed to Nantucket to tag adult great whites. But Mr. Fischer said that Ocearch hopes to return to Long Island next summer to stage a second effort to study juvenile whites.

Building a database of biological information about the young sharks and the adults they encounter will help scientists understand the movements of white sharks and, hopefully, start to understand where the sharks breed and give birth.

In the meantime, Mr. Metzger says, some of the tricks learned this summer for catching the little whites will be helpful to the Long Island Shark Collaboration in its own efforts to tag white sharks each year.

“It’s super-exciting,” Mr. Metzger said. “We’re right on the edge of some very groundbreaking work in the white shark story.”

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Lotsa toothy critters here!
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on Aug 26, 16 7:50 PM
We need to kill all sharks so they don't harm humans.
By lirider (288), Hampton Bays on Aug 26, 16 11:10 PM
You're joking right ?
By Sturgis (611), Southampton on Aug 27, 16 7:56 AM
1 member liked this comment
Sharks are imperative to our ecosystem. Without sharks everything in the sea will perish. It is a cascade effect. Please take time to discover the ocean and marine life. Sharks do not arbitrarily attack humans. You have a greater chance of being hit by lightening than you do a shark attack. Sharks will hunt for wounded or dead marine life.
By mcgrawkeber (47), East Hampton on Sep 1, 16 2:27 PM
1 member liked this comment
Years ago I read a book ("Shadows of the Deep," I think it was named) which documented a number of shark attacks here and abroad. The authors maintained that the second largest Hammerhead Shark nursery in the world, after Durban, South Africa, was Great South Bay up around Captree.

Saw a Hammerhead once -- weird. Never saw a Great White, thank you very much!

By Frank Wheeler (1826), Northampton on Aug 27, 16 12:13 AM
Very Cool. Given our location you would think that we would have more active marine research centers. Go to Woods Hole and the town is all about marine research. Stony Brook in Shinne should be expanded to include research like this with Ocearch.
By North Sea Citizen (568), North Sea on Aug 27, 16 6:49 AM
4 members liked this comment
Just got out of the water after paddle boarding Rd G Some sharky activity, dorsal or tail of some type of shark blowing through a bait school!
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on Aug 28, 16 11:57 AM