Science behind SWFL shark surge

There have been a lot of shark sightings—and three bites—in South Florida recently. The Ocearch Shark Tracker lets you follow the movements of tagged sharks, and there are plenty swimming near us. Captain Brian Smith with Smoking Hooks Fishing Charter says this is the most active he’s seen the sharks in a while, and scientists agree.

Smith reeled in a massive tiger shark five miles off the coast of Naples Monday, near Vanderbilt Beach; a 13-footer, the largest Smith has ever caught.

“This year has been phenomenal for all-around fishing—for bottom fish, for kingfishes—and the sharks have moved in very thick,” Smith said.

According to Smith, he and his crew were just getting ready to end the charter when the tiger shark latched on and fought them for two hours. Being a charter captain grants him a permits that allows him to bring in sharks, though he wasn’t out looking for them when he caught this big one. Tiger sharks are protected species, so they ultimately released it.

“These fish are very protected, very good fish,” Smith said. “We protect our sharks out there, because they clean our oceans, so we want to make sure we’re careful when we do the releases of the sharks, and it was a great time.”

Experts say this is the time when sharks are typically closer to shore and moving to warmer waters. Blacktips come here before heading back up north, but they are followed by larger species, like tiger sharks. While these black-eyed hunters may seem scary, don’t worry, beachgoers; they don’t want to eat you, they’re just following the fish.

While marine biologists can’t definitely say there is a measurable increase in shark sightings, they do know more fishermen are catching sharks. One idea scientists are looking into is that lockdowns could play a role in this. Now that people are flocking back to the water for spring, it might be confusing to the sharks.

“We know with the lockdown, and sort of the limited movement that people have been doing over the past 12 months, that a lot of animals have responded,” said Dr. Billy Gunnels, professor in biological sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University. “A lot of animals have moved into spaces where we used to be, but we’re not presently. And we’ve seen this in terms of wildlife that you find in cities, like rats, we’ve seen as in terms of birds, and a way in which they call; it’s not surprising that we would also see similar things in terms of fish.”

Gunnels says these sharks come close to shore to follow the food, but bites suffered by humans are very rare: Last year, there were only 57 bites worldwide, a surprisingly low number considering how many sharks and people are sharing the same coastal waters.

A few things to keep in mind if you head to the beach this spring:

  • Avoid murky waters.
  • Avoid swimming when it’s dark.
  • Don’t wear sparkly jewelry.
  • Don’t splash around too much—the sharks might mistake you for a struggling fish.
Reporter:Dannielle Garcia
Writer:Joey Pellegrino
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