Shark Encounters of New Jersey

Arianna Nixon

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Tampa

 

The state of New Jersey has approximately 227 km of costal land, commonly referred to as the Jersey Shore. The Shore is known for its expansive and impressive boardwalks that contains: arcades, water parks, amusement parks, and plenty of shops to entertain tourists. Thousands of people flock to the Shore every summer to enjoy the beautiful beaches that New Jersey has to offer, with most tourists visiting from New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania.

With so many people venturing in the ocean every day, one would assume New Jersey has many shark “attacks”. In reality, shark “attacks” are incredibly rare. According to the Global Shark Attack File (GSAF) there have been 50 shark “attacks” in recorded history in the state of New Jersey. The phrase “shark attack” provokes a very powerful horrific, and bloody image. However, not all human-shark interactions that are recorded as attacks are the same. For example, one “attack” might result in no actual human-shark contact, while another one might be potentially fatal. Therefore, the term “shark attack” is very misleading to the public, creating a clear line between the victim and the villain. In reality, human-shark interactions are usually just random acts of nature.

Human-shark interactions are important to study, because they provide us with a glimpse into the sharks’ world. By understanding where and why shark interactions occur, we can help reduce the likelihood of them becoming dangerous. Places such as Florida or Australia have some of the highest numbers of shark interactions, resulting in them being traditional places of study. However, places like New Jersey attract thousands of visitors every summer. Understanding where these interactions are taking places, and why they are happening will help New Jersey maintain high numbers of visitors by aiding education efforts to tell visitors how to avoid dangerous interactions.

GSAF provides unlimited access to their incident log, because their mission is “to provide current and historical data on shark/human interaction for those who seek accurate and meaningful information and verifiable references” (Shark Research Institute, 2015). GSAF incident log provides many different types of data when available, including: date, type, country, area, location, human activity, human/humans involved information, injury, fatality, time, species, and source. The GSAF provides enough information to begin examining the human-shark interactions in New Jersey.

Scientists categorize interactions into different categories to better describe the nature of the interaction. Shark interactions have traditionally been separated into unprovoked and provoked attacks. A provoked attack includes incidents where a shark was caught, trapped, speared, injured, or in some way provoked to attack (Schultz, 1964). An unprovoked attack includes incidents where an “unprovoked” shark made physical contact with the human or their gear (Schultz, 1964). GSAF breaks down their data into four different categories: unprovoked, provoked, boating, and invalid. To be considered a boating incident, the shark must bite, or ram into a boat. Invalid interactions lack sufficient data to determine if the injury was caused by a shark, or the person drowned and the body was scavenged by sharks. For some cases, the evidence suggests that there was no shark involvement (Shark Research Institute, 2015).

According to the GSAF, New Jersey has had 50 different shark interactions. They are broken down into 25 unprovoked interactions, 13 provoked, 7 boating, and 5 invalid interactions (Shark Research Institute, 2015). Figure 1 shows a map of New Jersey and the approximate location of all 50 interactions. The latitude and longitude of the interactions were not given. Some locations were very specific, while other were very broad, such as just giving the county it occurred in. In fact, two incidents are not shown, because the only location given, was simply stated as “offshore”. Therefore, the locations shown are more of a general area, rather than an exact location. This is one limitation to the GSAF data. When available, the exact latitude and longitude should be recorded for any shark encounter. Therefore, from this information, it can be seen that all areas of the shore have encounters with sharks. However, it can also be seen, that Northern New Jersey has had a higher frequency of encounters when compared to Southern New Jersey.

The nomenclature of provoked versus unprovoked paints a very clear image. Provoked attacks are seemingly all the fault of the human, while unprovoked attacks are seemingly all the fault of the shark. This system of classifying encounters is focused on assigning blame for the interactions. Most unprovoked interactions are thought to be the result of shark feeding behavior. However, shark bites may be a result of random opportunity, interference with reproductive activity, defensive, or even if you trespass into the sharks’ space (Neff & Hueter, 2013). In actuality, very few human-shark interactions are the result of feeding behavior. Humans are not part of any species of sharks’ natural diet. This creates problems when determining if an encounter is provoked or unprovoked because the cause may not be easily determined.

Recently, new systems of classification have been proposed to more accurately describe the interactions between sharks and humans (Neff & Hueter, 2013). The term “shark sighting” is used to describe incidents where there is no physical contact between the human and shark. The term “shark encounter” is used to describe incidents where there is physical contact, but no injury. An example of a shark encounter would be a shark biting a surfboard, or bumping a swimmer with their rostrum. The term “shark bite” is used to describe incidents where there is minor to moderate injuries resulting from the shark biting the human. “Fatal shark bite” is used to describe incidents where the injury is serious enough that the human dies as a result. The purpose of this system, is to focus on the outcome of the incident rather than the motivation, thus creating a more objective look at human-shark interactions (Neff & Hueter, 2013). This nomenclature was used to reclassify the interaction provided by the GSAF. Table 1 shows the amount of interactions for each classification in order to compare the two different types of nomenclature.  

Nomenclature #1 Amount Nomenclature #2 Amount
Unprovoked 25 Sighting 0
Provoked 13 Encounter 17
Boating 7 Bite 23
Invalid 5 Fatal Bite 5
Total 50 Invalid 5
Total 50

Table 1: Amount of human-shark interactions for the state of New Jersey using two different methods of classification. Nomenclature #1 is the traditional method used by GSAF, while Nomenclature #2 is a more recent method proposed by Neff and Hueter.

 

The Neff and Hueter system of classification gives a very clear picture as to the outcome of the interaction. For example, it should be noted that 17 out of the 45 “attacks” resulted in no human injury. The original nomenclature did not allow any clear picture that almost 40% of all attacks did not result in any injury. However, there is no accountability for when humans do something stupid when using the Neff and Heuter nomenclature. For example, many of the interactions listed as bites, were a result of the shark biting a fisherman after they were dragged aboard a fishing vessel. In cases such as these, the bites were purely out of self-defense. Neither system of nomenclature gives a clear picture to these situations. That is why, I propose the use of a mixture of both systems to create the clearest picture possible. The Neff and Hueter method should be the primary method of classification, because it creates the clearest image of the reality of what these interactions look like. However, when describing an interaction, especially to the media it is important to accept blame when it is clearly the humans fault that the interaction was a negative one. Table 2 shows the same 50 interactions, reclassified to fit the newly proposed system. The nomenclature of unprovoked was replaced with unidentified, because the cause for the interaction is still unknown. These interactions could have been a result of curiosity, territoriality, reproduction, ect. While we don’t know why the interaction occurred, this does not automatically mean they were unprovoked. This word unprovoked places blame, when in reality we don’t know why the interaction occurred. However, the interactions with the distinction of being provoked, were a result of the humans unintentionally, or intentionally harming the shark. Therefore, the blame placed was clear and justified. This new system gives a clear picture as to what interactions are needed for further study. Provoked interactions do not require further study, because it was a random event. The unidentified interactions require further study, so that we are better able to predict, and eliminate similar interactions in the future.

New Nomenclature Amount
Encounter (Provoked) 3
Encounter (Unidentified) 7
Bite (Provoked) 6
Bite (Unidentified) 17
Fatal Bite (Provoked) 0
Fatal Bite (Unidentified) 5
Invalid 5
Boating 7
Total 50

Table 2: New Jersey human-shark interactions reclassified under a new proposed system of nomenclature of classifying interactions to more accurately describe what occurred.

 

When most people hear the phrase “shark attack” they assume that the result was death. However, a fatal shark interaction is incredibly rare. On average, only five people die from shark attacks every year (Handwerk, 2005). You are more likely to be struck by lightning, or killed by a vending machine then killed by a shark. Using nomenclature that expresses this is important, so that we can work to reverse the negative stigma that we have created against sharks. Figure 2 shows a map of the five fatal bites. An interesting thing to mention, is that four of the five fatal interactions occurred in 1916, all occurring in the span of twelve days. The fifth fatal interaction occurred in 1926. Therefore, New Jersey hasn’t had a fatal shark interaction long before modern medicine.

The biggest limit to our understanding of why these interactions occur, is a lack of data. GSAF is a compilation of many different sources. Unfortunately, many interactions occur with no scientists nearby. This means we are relying upon human accounts to be accurate and unbiased. GSAF reports the investigator or source for every shark encounter. This results in many gaps in the data. There are very few interactions that have even a guess of the species of shark involved. Additionally, the exact activities of the human are not always well reported.  For example, for case 1931.08.06.R, the source was the New York Times, and no information was given on the interaction besides the fact that it involved a soldier who survived. This makes it hard to establish what happened that lead to the interaction. GSAF has obtained all possible information on these interactions, however there are many gaps that makes it hard to make conclusions about any of the unidentified interactions.

Historically, sharks used to only be a product of superstition passed down from sailors as nothing more than a legend. In the early 1900’s, most people outside of Australia did not believe that sharks attacked people, even though there was evidence dating back more than 2000 years that sharks did “attack” people (Francis, 2012). The four fatal attacks in 1916 stunned Americans, causing a panic that had never been felt before in the United States. The film Jaws premiered on June 20, 1975, sparking a new-found fear of man-eating sharks (Francis, 2012). Unfortunately, we are still feeling the effects of this fear. The media can now rely on the presence of sharks to attract the publics interest, as long as they have a scary enough headline. Recreational hunting for sharks rose in 1975, with shark killing tournaments becoming increasingly popular (Francis, 2012). For example, there in an annual South Jersey Shark Tournament in Cape May where they compete to catch the heaviest sharks. Unfortunalty, our perception of sharks has always been one of misunderstanding and fear.

Humans are instinctually afraid of anything that we know little about. However, that does not give us the right to kill or harm these top predators. For every human killed by a shark, humans kill over two million sharks (Handwerk, 2005). We have allowed the media and others to dictate the language of human-shark interactions. It is clear that not all shark “attacks” are created equal. If we are going to change people’s fear into understanding, then we need to further understand what these interactions actually look like. The first step, is to change the language. Human-shark interactions need to be described in a way that accurately shows what happens without placing any unjust blame. The victims of many of these interactions were more than just the human. Sharks are victims of our misplaced fear, more than humans are victims of the rarely violent interactions.  

References

Francis, B. (2012). Before and After “Jaws”: Changing Representations of Shark Attacks. The Great Circle, 44-64.

Handwerk, B. (2005, June 13). Shark Facts: Attack Stats, Record Swims,. Retrieved from National Geographic.

Neff, C., & Hueter, R. (2013). Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark “attack”; a proposal for reclassifying human-shark interactions. Journal of Environmental Studies and Science, 65-73.

Schultz, L. P. (1964). Attacks by Sharks as Related to the Activities of Man. In Sharks and Survival (pp. 425-452).

Shark Research Institute. (2015). Retrieved from Global Shark Attack File : http://www.sharkattackfile.net/incidentlog.htm