From Megalodons to bull sharks, eastern North Carolina has shark past and present

Published 9:39 pm Wednesday, July 31, 2019

It’s Shark Week.

The popular TV event on Discovery Channel is eight days of all things shark, from educational features about the giants of prehistoric times to current adventures of shark trackers seeking the largest great white in the seas. Shark Week shows delve into shark behaviors and shark habitats — and some of those can be found in eastern North Carolina waters.

In Aurora, ample evidence of the giant Megalodon that once plied the ocean over eastern North Carolina can be found at the Aurora Fossil Museum. Today, another shark is taking up residence in nearby waters, and according to one shark expert, they might be closer than recreational boaters and swimmers in local rivers know.

Charles Bangley is a post-doctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center; his research these days has him tracking six shark species traveling up and down the East Coast. However, it was when he was a PhD student at East Carolina University’s Coastal Resources Management Program that bull sharks began to show up on the eastern North Carolina charts.

“We starting noticing there was a big uptick. Prior to 2011-2012, bull sharks, in particular, were pretty rare in the (Division of Marine Fisheries) surveys, and then in about 2012, there was a big spike where there were 40-some animals in one year. They’ve kind of gone from being rare to something they can reliably catch every year,” Bangley said.

Though bull sharks before 2011-12 were less likely to be found in area waters, now the Pamlico Sound is becoming known as a nursery for these sharks that average about 8 feet long.

“There are a couple things probably going on: the water is warming, that’s probably one of the things that brought the bull sharks into the Pamlico Sound,” Bangley said. “What’s changed is that they didn’t usually breed in the Sound. They’re making the Sound a nursery habitat. It mirrors a trend that we’re seeing along the coast — a lot of things, as the water warms up, are spreading (farther north).”

Warming water likely accounts for another trend: the increase of shark attacks in North Carolina waters from 2010 to 2019 and the increase in shark attacks in northern states: where none were recorded from Maryland to Maine in 2000 to 2009, 12 were recorded from 2010 to 2019, according to a study by Shark attacks in North Carolina waters increased from 26 from 2000 to 2009, to 32 during the next decade.

However, North Carolina’s increase in shark attacks could be attributed to a single event in 2015, when a heat wave in early June corresponded with school letting out for the summer and resulted in an unusually high concentration of both people and marine life in the water, Bangley said. The statistics are essentially driven by numbers, he said: in this case, the population of people in the water versus the population of sharks.

“It basically just tracks back to how many people are at the beach, whether that’s a shark bite, a jellyfish sting or someone getting stuck in a rip current,” he said.

The increase in shark attacks farther north can be attributed to a return of sharks to those waters, as conservation programs have rebuilt a critical part of the shark diet.

“We also have, in addition to warming waters, particularly off of Cape Cod, conservation of the population of seals — that’s been successful. They’re a food source for great whites,” Bangley said. “We’re seeing that with a few other shark species, as well. Sharks are actually doing pretty well in the U.S. as opposed to other parts of the world.”

No matter where one might be swimming, Bangley said the odds of being bitten by a shark are “pretty low,” though encounters might be more frequent than people realize: Bangley said 99% of all interactions between sharks and humans consist of a shark recognizing a human from less than 100 yards away and steering clear, including in the Pamlico Sound and, conceivably, the Pamlico River.

“Most of the bull sharks in the Sound are smaller individuals — they’re juveniles. Most of them are going to see you and swim away because you’re bigger than them,” Bangley said.

He did say that swimmers should take a few precautions on beach trips this summer: stay out of murky water, as in murky water sharks are less able to distinguish between swimmer and prey; don’t swim near any kind of fishing activity; look out for signs of the food web happening nearby, such as birds diving or fish jumping.

“Just be aware of your surroundings,” Bangley said.

As for whether bull sharks actually are in the Pamlico and Pungo rivers, Bangley noted that the species is very adaptable, as it can live in both salt and freshwater, and bull sharks have been documented as far up the Mississippi River as Illinois.

“As far as the water conditions go, there wouldn’t be anything preventing them from being in (the Pamlico River),” Bangley said. “Washington might be a little bit upstream from where it would be preferable for them, but they could certainly get up there.”