Searching for answers after seventh North Carolina shark attack

Shark attacks north carolina what cause
Shark attacks have been on the rise in North Carolina this summer. Photo: Flickr user Steve Garner

(Update: A 68-year-old man swimming off the coast of Ocracoke Island was bitten multiple times by a shark around 12 p.m. EST today, making him the seventh person to have been attacked by a shark off the North Carolina coast in the last 20 days. The incident occurred less than 60 miles from the last attack. The man has been airlifted to a Greenville, North Carolina, hospital.)

North Carolina is having a historically bad summer for shark attacks.

So far, in the past two weeks, six beachgoers — two more than were recorded all of last year — have been injured. Two of them lost limbs, and the most recent is currently in serious condition.

It all begs the question: What’s causing all these shark attacks?

RELATED: Reactions to shark attacks in North Carolina

“The truth of the matter is we don’t know if this is a signal of some larger trend or just a statistical anomaly,” assistant professor of fish ecology at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences, Dr. Joel Fodrie, told GrindTV. “I can’t sit here and tell you if we can expect zero or six more [attacks] for the rest of the year, but our best guess is that many different factors are producing this result.”

Fodrie thinks that the attacks are a result of a perfect storm of factors including hotter weather, plentiful numbers of bait fish, raising ocean salinity and increased beach visitors.

“It’s been incredibly warm this summer, and we’ve been in a bit of a drought in North Carolina, so that’s led to warmer waters and higher water salinity, which sharks prefer,” said Fodrie. “Those factors can affect ocean ecology and cause marine flight shift, where certain types of fish and food sources are moving closer into the shore, bringing the sharks closer [to] the shore and swimmers.”

The Atlantic manhaden is known to spawn in large numbers near North Carolina and could be drawing sharks closer to shore. Photo: Wikipedia
The Atlantic menhaden is known to spawn in large numbers near North Carolina and could be drawing sharks closer to shore. Photo: Wikipedia

According to director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History, George H. Burress, a species of bait fish, the menhaden, has had a particularly plentiful run along North Carolina’s shores this summer. Burress told National Geographic these fish could be drawing sharks closer to shore and causing more attacks.

Another factor that both Burress and Fodrie agree is likely culpable is the increase in the amount of beachgoers this summer in North Carolina.

“North Carolina has the fourth most beach visitors of any state in the country annually,” Fodrie said. “With how warm it’s been this year, and with the state not getting those daily afternoon summer showers we normally get, it’s been an extremely busy year for our shores.”

As a general rule to avoid shark encounters, it is best to steer clear of areas where fish feeding is occurring like piers. Photo: Twenty20
As a general rule to avoid shark encounters, it is best to steer clear of areas where fish feeding is occurring, like piers. Photo: Twenty20

And while it’s hard to pinpoint a single cause for the increase in shark attacks, there are some preventative measures you can take while at the beach.

“You should avoid going in the water if you have any type of injury, and try to stick to being in the water in the middle of the day,” said Fodrie. “Just be aware; if you see an area with a ton of fish-feeding going on, you should avoid that area. And if you’re near a pier, or an area of the beach where there’s a lot of fishing going on, you should try to stick away from those places.”

Fodrie said that beachgoers also need to understand that it’s almost impossible to be in the water in Tar Heel State and not be near a smaller shark, and that while using common sense will help, they’ll never eliminate the chance of coming into contact with a shark. Still, it’s so statistically rare, Fodrie said, nobody should be afraid to go in the water.

“I don’t see stats supporting avoiding the water,” said Fodrie. “I have two small children and we were in the water twice last week and we’ll be in the water a couple times over the next week, because I know it’s still safe.”

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