It’s that time of year again: the thick of summer when sharks have caught America’s attention.
Unwanted interactions and shark sightings have made national headlines, and shark bites in popular tourist destinations have prompted temporary closures. In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul deployed dozens of shark-monitoring drones to parts of the state after Long Island authorities reported five non-fatal shark bites over two days.
It may feel like you’ve been hearing about these large creatures more often this summer, and that just might be the case. Experts say that while estimating population numbers is difficult, there are signs that some shark populations off US coasts are slowly rebounding after decades of dramatic declines – the result of longtime conservation efforts across the country that are beginning to pay off.
“Sharks are coming back. Their numbers are growing,” said Dr. Bob Hueter, chief scientist for OCEARCH, a nonprofit ocean research and education organization. “They’re not overpopulated, they’re not even probably close to what they were back in the 1940s and 1950s. But they are making a comeback.”
But do more sharks make American beaches more dangerous?
Actually, no. But it will take some getting used to, experts said.
Here’s what to know.
Are there more sharks in American waters than the past few decades?
Experts, cautiously, believe so.
Up until the late 1960s, shark numbers remained relatively stable off US shores before they began to drastically plummet as a result of overfishing, bycatch, destruction of habitats and declines in some shark species’ prey.
By the late 1980s, roughly two-thirds of shark populations in American oceans had vanished, said Hueter, who has been studying sharks for more than five decades.
Hueter was among the conservationists who pushed for shark protections including the 1993 Fishery Management Plan for Sharks of the Atlantic Ocean, which set up restrictions around all US Atlantic federal shark fisheries and became the base for many rules still in place today. It also prohibited shark finning – the hunting of sharks for their fins. The practice was later banned across the United States. In 1997, the US established the prohibited shark species group, which barred the possession, sale and purchase of several shark species, including white and sand tiger sharks. More than a dozen shark species remain on that list. And protections like the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 helped restore the animals sharks feed on, including gray seals in the Northwest Atlantic where white shark populations are, as one outlet put it, “surging.”
“These measures were put into place and now here we are 30 years later, and we are seeing the resurgence of not only the white shark but also many of the other species,” Hueter said. “The fact is, we’re resetting our oceans and we’re restoring ecological balance by bringing these animals back.”
But before our collective sigh of relief, it’s worth noting sharks are not out of the woods by any means.
Globally, their numbers remain grim.
A 2021 study found over a third of sharks, rays and chimeras, a type of fish, are threatened with extinction, and in many parts of the world, sharks are still overfished. Every year, humans kill 73 to 100 million sharks for their fins, according to the Shark Research Institute.
How do we count sharks?
It’s really, really hard.
Methods like tagging or collecting information from fishermen have their limitations: Some sharks may get tagged because they swim closer to the surface than others that prefer deeper waters, and reports from fishermen may be biased, since they often travel to locations with plenty of fish, said Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida.
Information can also come from surveying those who are regularly keeping an eye out on the waters, like lifeguards and pilots.
“We’ve looked at lifeguard sighting records over the last 25 years and we’ve noticed in the last 10 years, numbers of shark sightings have gone up,” said Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach.
“I’ve talked to pilots, either helicopter or fixed-wing pilots, that have been flying over Southern California for decades,” he said. “They all tell me they have never seen more sharks in their life than they have in the last eight to 10 years.”
Do more sharks = more bites?
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: The risk of being bitten by a shark remains exceptionally, remarkably, incredibly low. (Seriously, your chances are 1 in more than 3 million.)
Sharks simply are not interested in eating humans.
“If sharks … wanted to bite people, I think we’d probably have about between 10 and 20,000 shark bites a day,” said Naylor. “But they spend their entire time trying to avoid us.”
Between 2012 and 2021, there was an average of about 76 unprovoked shark bites across the globe annually, less than 8% of which were fatal, according to data from the International Shark Attack File. (Researchers place an emphasis on the unprovoked bites b