2 sharks? Too normal to excite regulars at Ocean County beaches

BARNEGAT LIGHT, N.J. - As the crow flies - or, more accurately, as the fish swims - this tiny resort town at the northern tip of Long Beach Island could be the next logical target for a couple of sharks spotted off Ocean County beaches just north of here last week.

But with as many as 70 million sharks killed by humans annually around the world, the two that apparently got away along the Jersey Shore aren't worrying too many people.

"To see sharks in the waters around here in the summertime, it's a normal occurrence. They're out there feeding on bunker pods like they always do," said Basil Shehady, manager at the Barnegat Light Bait & Tackle Shop, in the shadow of venerable "Old Barney" - a place that would be perfect for spotting sharks in the surf.

Commencing a well-practiced eye roll when asked about the shark sightings, Shehady's neighbor Ben Weller of Destin, Fla., who's been summering here for more than 50 years, suggested that nobody around was too excited about the whole thing.

"Nobody's concerned. If you live around here long enough, you're bound to see anything in these waters . . . dolphins, whales, tuna, and sharks. They're just part of the ecosystem," Weller said. "It's hysterical when people get all freaked out about it. They're usually not from around here."

Last week, though, lifeguards in three Jersey Shore towns told swimmers that it wasn't safe to be in the water after receiving reports that two sharks were close to shore.

The first sightings came Monday in Ocean Beach, a barrier island that is part of Toms River. On Wednesday, the beach patrol in Seaside Park reported that two five-foot long sharks had been spotted in the shallows about 10 a.m. Then the next day, in the South Seaside Park Beach section of Berkeley Township, what were believed to be the same two sharks were seen about 30 yards from the beach.

"I think it's the constant hype about sharks that scares people into misunderstanding what's really going on out there in the waters off the Jersey Shore," said Marie Levine, founder of the Princeton conservation group Shark Research Institute. "They're just out there being sharks. They're not really dangerous at all to humans."

Levine said the sharks seen last week were likely sandbar sharks, also known as brown sharks. They are an inshore species common off New Jersey, usually more active at dawn and dusk. The world's most dangerous sharks - the bull, great white, and tiger - are rarely seen off the coast here. When they are, they're usually in the deepwater "canyons" more than 50 miles offshore.

The entire shark "hysteria" - if there is any - likely can be traced to a Coast Guard bulletin at the start of the Fourth of July weekend, an attempt to alert recreational boaters off Cape Cod to be extra vigilant. The release followed a warning from a Massachusetts wildlife agency that burgeoning seal populations in the region could increase sightings of great whites, which like to snack on seals. Neither release mentioned that Massachusetts has recorded only four shark attacks in its history.

Nowadays some scientists theorize that if the number of shark sightings seems to be up, it's for the same reason that tornado sightings are up: more people, more observations, said George H. Burgess, director of shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

He also theorized that with Atlantic waters all the way north to Newfoundland warmer this summer than usual - by an average of 3 degrees - more southern creatures like sharks are willing to expand their territory for feeding.

"They are a lot like Yankee tourists in their pattern. If temperatures begin to get warmer faster, then the sharks are likely to move up at a faster pace and in greater abundance," Burgess said. "You may have an August-level of abundance in July. So basically, that's what you're seeing."

Recent scientific data suggest that humans annually kill between 25 million and 70 million sharks, with various humane societies putting the number at the high end.

But whatever the number, Burgess said, the theme is clear: "It's more a story of man attacks shark than shark attacks man."


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article.