What is the most dangerous shark in North Carolina?

November 2004

Sand tiger sharks prefer wreck site habitats. Their jagged teeth are menacing; however, wreck divers seldom report hostile behavior. (Photo by Val Pambucol)

Sand tiger sharks prefer wreck site habitats. Their jagged teeth are menacing; however, wreck divers seldom report hostile behavior. (Photo by Val Pambucol)

That’s a difficult question. There are 400 known shark species in the world, and 56 of those species are known to frequent North Carolina’s coastal waters.

According to statistics over a period of more than 130 years, 23 shark attacks, seven of which were fatal, have been authenticated in North Carolina. The majority of the attacks have been attributed to bull sharks. Other sharks that frequent North Carolina waters and may be prone to attack humans are the tiger, mako, dusky, blue, blacktip, great white and hammerhead.

Some sharks, including the bull, tiger, blacktip, dusky and hammerhead, can tolerate varying levels of salinity. This allows them to enter estuaries and rivers, which increases their potential for encounters with humans.

Bull sharks occur from spring to fall in coastal, inshore, estuarine and often fresh water before migrating southward. Large sand tiger sharks are routinely found just past the breakers, as well as near shrimp trawlers, where they feed on fishes that escape the nets. Juvenile black tip and spinner sharks are often brought in on hook and line by surf fishermen. Small hammerheads and their relatives are routinely sighted near fishing piers, where they feed on migrating schools of fish. While the great white shark is probably the most highly publicized “dangerous shark,” it rarely comes close to shore, preferring the edge of the Carolinian continental shelf.

As one of the ocean’s top predators, sharks help maintain balance in the oceanic food web. Their population is declining and could have a tremendous impact on the natural order of the world’s oceans. Humans harvest hundreds of thousands of pounds of shark each year for food, medicine, leather and jewelry, and many sharks are killed needlessly out of fear.

State fishing restrictions are being imposed on some species. This may seem like a good idea, but many sharks migrate seasonally and don’t take note of state boundaries. To be effective, it takes more than one state to impose and enforce restrictions. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists 143 species of shark as endangered, critically endangered, near threatened or vulnerable on its Red List.

Sharks are mysterious creatures, shrouded by centuries of myths. Scientists have been able to dispel many of these myths, but there is still much to learn.

To decrease the possibility of a shark encounters with humans, follow these simple guidelines:

• Avoid swimming from dusk to dawn. This is when a shark typically feeds. Most attacks are “mistaken identity.”

• Do not swim in areas where bait is in the water. This includes fishing piers and areas where surf fishermen are fishing or where schools of small bait fish are moving through.

• Avoid wearing shiny objects into the water while swimming. Migrating food fishes often reflect light as they swim.

• Do not swim if you have an open, bleeding wound.