Sharks Are Just A Sign of the Times

Image from the excellent They Can Talk.

Why Are We Seeing More White Sharks and Seals in the Gulf of Maine?

I’m gonna be a bit indulgent and throw a hometown story in here, as a treat. You probably heard about the tragically fatal white shark attack that we had up here in Maine in July. As was widely reported, it was the state’s first such unprovoked attack in 183 years (that was when they started keeping track) and these kinds of attacks are incredibly rare in the first place – less than 100 globally each year. Those statistics do nothing, however, to convince the human brain – especially the human brain in a post-Jaws era – that it will not get eaten by a shark. Plus, shark-bitten seal carcasses have been washing ashore up and down the Maine coast (personal, anecdotal evidence). It’s got folks talking. Even I’m not immune, sharks lurking in the back of my mind as I consider surfing in the morning.

I’ve heard from more than a few folks that there are more white sharks around because of the warming of the Gulf of Maine (a well-loved and oft-mentioned fact). That reasoning almost makes sense, after all, changing ocean temperatures the world over are driving massive shifts in the geographical distributions of species. But, while white sharks do range through tropical seas, they have a wide distribution that includes plenty of chilly temperate oceans, as well. My Spidey-senses are tingling.

The nerds over at the University of New Hampshire have got my back on this. According to those in the know, the sharks are here for food (respect), and that’s actually a really good thing. It means that legal protections and fisheries management legislation put in place in the 1970s are working. Prior, many fish populations in New England – including white sharks – were fished to the brink of disappearing. Recovery has been slow, but it’s happening, and increased sightings of white sharks and other top predators in Maine waters indicates that fish populations have grown. Hopefully they continue to do so, and even though that means more encounters between sharks and humans, I’m confident we can learn to share thriving oceans with these rad critters.

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