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What Kinds of Sharks are Found off the North Carolina Coast?

21 June 1999

 

Many kinds of sharks can be found in the waters off North Carolina. According to shark researcher Frank J. Schwartz, over 50 species of sharks are known to swim in the estuarine, shelf and deep ocean waters of North and South Carolina. 26 of those species are considered the most common sharks of North Carolina.

 

sandbar shark

Sandbar sharks are a common species in North Carolina

 

That sounds like a lot of sharks. However, consider that those 26 most common North Carolina species include sharks that live offshore in deep water rarely coming or those that only visit our coast during certain times of the year. Whether or not other species of shark decide to visit the Tar Heel coast can depend on a number of factors, including water temperature, food supplies, and breeding patterns.

 

For example, North Carolina’s coast is considered to be a birthing ground for six kinds of shark, including the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvieri). Year-round sharks that prefer deep ocean water include the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) and the blue shark (Prionace glauca). These sharks very rarely, if ever come close to shore.

The thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus) also prefers deeper waters, where it can be found year round, however it may come closer inshore during July and August. The thresher is distinguished by its long tail or caudal fin, which it uses to herd and stun its prey.

 

The silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) also is a year round offshore shark that can be found closer in from May to December. The Atlantic sharpnose (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae) and smooth dogfish (Mustelus canis) are year-round North Carolina residents who may be found closer to shore. The sharpnose is one of the most abundant sharks in North Carolina waters during the summer and its pups (offspring) are common catches off our piers. Fishermen often refer to them as sand sharks. Its average size is three feet. The smooth dogfish averages four feet in length. It is commonly found in less than 60 feet and feeds primarily on crabs and shrimp.

During the summer and fall months, sand tiger (Odontaspis taurus), sand bar (Carcharhinus plumbeus), spinner (Carcharhinus brevipinna) and scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) sharks are among the most common inshore visitors to our coast. The great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) also ventures inshore between June and September, as does its smaller cousin, the bonnethead (Sphyrna tiburo) shark. Bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), blacktip(Carcharhinus limbatus) and blacknose (Carcharhinus acronotus) sharks also are found inshore during the spring and summer.

 

Of the 350 species of sharks that swim in the world’s oceans, experts consider only half a dozen to be dangerous. Most are shy and harmless, avoiding people and other large animals when possible. While it may seem as though sharks are plentiful off our coast, the chance of a close encounter with one of even our most common sharks is slim.

Additional Resources

 

Web Sites

 

Shark Research Institute

The American Elasmobranch Society

Florida Museum of Natural History

Elasmobranch Research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Books:

  • Sharks of the Carolinas, Frank J. Schwartz
    Institute of Marine Sciences, UNC, March 1989
  • The Sharks of North America, Jose I. Castro
    Texas A&M University Press, 1983
  • Shadows in the Sea: The Sharks, Skates and Rays, Thomas B. Allen
    Lyons & Burford, 1996