Since the beginning of the summer, panhandle residents and visitors have been reporting numerous sharks hanging out along the sandbars near the passes, cruising between the 2nd sandbar and the beach. One visitor was even bitten; raising the question – What’s up with all the sharks?
Actually, over the years sharks have been feeding along on the sandbars. While tagging sharks at Dauphin Island Sea Lab we would send an ultralite aircraft up to spot their locations. The pilot often reported seeing sharks hanging out on the sandbars near the pass. The sharks generally moved slowly until the shadow of the aircraft would hit and spook them into swimming off. Surfers and fishermen alike know that sharks frequent the inshore waters near the beach during the warmer months. Some or the larger sharks certainly enter the bays where feeding and breeding probably occur. So, finding them in these locations is not that unusual.
What seems to be unusual this year are the numbers. Locals who have worked these waters for years say they have seen more sharks on the sandbars than they remember in the past. We do not have data on how many sharks typically are found on bars, so there’s no conclusive proof that the number seen this summer is significantly more. However, if the folks out there every day say they are seeing more, then there may be something to it.
The gathering of sharks may be due to feeding. Like any other animal, they gather where the food is. I have seen Jack Crevalle gather at the mouths of our bayous feeding after a fish kill. The big flood this summer dropped salinities below normal and many estuarine animals died; Big Lagoon was littered with dead clams. It is possible that the sharks are feeding on these with the outgoing tides. If there is more food there would be more sharks. Another possible explanation could be temperature control. Like all fish, sharks are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and need warm water to keep maintain their body temperature. Divers searching for lionfish this spring indicated that the bottom temperatures have been colder than normal this year; again, possibly due to the flood waters or an upwelling from the deeper Gulf. The sharks may be gathering where warmer water can be found: shallow water over bars. Outside of nurse and lemon shark species, breeding in sharks has rarely been observed. However, now is the time of year when this occurs and the National Marine Fisheries has considered the estuaries of the northern Gulf potential breeding areas for some species of shark.
As far as the threat of attacks are concerned, there is really not a high risk. Certainly sharks in feeding mode in shallow water could be a potential threat. But according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History only 21 attacks have occurred in panhandle waters since 1882 and 2 were fatal; 1 in Bay County (1988) and 1 in Walton (2005) . Following some simple rules will reduce your risk of shark bite. Swimming in or near baitfish or where recreational fishing is going on could increase your chances; avoid these. Though shark attacks occur all hours of the day and night there seems to be more during dawn and dusk, as these are their primary feeding times. Lifeguards along the coast are constantly watching for these fish along with other hazards. Following these simple rules should allow you to enjoy the water without concern. If you have any questions about sharks contact your county Sea Grant Extension Agent.
Author: Rick O’Connor – email@example.com, Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County