Since the movie “Jaws” became popular some years ago the general public has become fascinated with sharks and shark attacks so when visitors from upstate visit our home on North Carolina’s coast and gaze out across the Pamlico River and Sound one of the first questions they usually ask is “Are there any sharks in the water here?”
My answer usually surprises them when I tell them that,“Yes, we definitely have sharks here on the Pamlico River and I wouldn’t be surprised if you find sharks well upstream of our brackish water.”
The next question that’s asked after I opine that we do have sharks here is, “What kind of sharks are here?”
When I reply that one of the major sharks we find in our brackish water is the bull shark the visitors begin to look a little concerned. “Isn’t that one of the sharks that is considered to be a man-eater?” The answer is that, Yes, they are and before you ask the next question I’ll tell you that, yes, we have had one well documented shark attack in these waters but that’s the only one I know of.
That shark attack happened maybe 20 years ago when a family was taking their sailboat from Oriental to Ocracoke Island. It was a beautiful day with enough wind to take the sailboat on a leisurely trip across the Pamlico Sound and the teenaged daughter decided to let the boat tow her on an inner tube behind the boat. It was a relatively innocent request and the father of the young woman and skipper of the boat agreed to the tow.
Somewhere at about mid-sound and near the eastern end of the Brant Island Shoal something decided that the woman on the inner tube looked good to eat and a shark (later identified by the tooth marks as being a bull shark) attacked the woman’s legs as they hung off the back of the inner tube.
The woman’s screams alerted the crew aboard the sailboat and the woman was quickly brought back aboard the boat. It was a bloody scene as the young victim had serious damage to her legs and was rapidly losing blood.
The skipper wisely decided that this was a justified SOS call to the U.S. Coast Guard and a helicopter was dispatched to rush the victim to the hospital in Morehead City. The emergency room doctors and nurses at the hospital spent a good amount of time administering blood transfusions to the victim and cleaning and sewing the wounds. Doctors later told me that several hundred stitches were necessary to close the wounds. The young woman survived but she’ll bear the scars on her legs for the rest of her life.
Fishery scientists at the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries later examined photos of the woman’s wounds and identified the shark as being a bull shark, a shark that is relatively well known in our brackish waters of Pamlico Sound and River. They opine that the shark may have mistaken the woman being towed on an inner tube to be the bag end of a trawl net. Trawlers commonly drag a trawl net for awhile before hauling this into the boat to wash out small debris that was caught up during the trawl. Sharks commonly gather at this “washing out” to get an easy meal and they have been known to bite at the net in order to get at more food.
Later I talked with several commercial fishermen from Cedar Island and asked if there were many bull sharks in our rivers and sounds. Their answer surprised me when they said that the bull sharks were commonly taken by fishermen when they were using a long haul net to harvest fish for the markets. They suggested that if I wanted to see for myself to go along with one of these long haul operations and see for myself how many sharks were being caught incidental to the harvesting of food fish.
The long hauling operation involves at least two relatively large inboard commercial fishing boats. The net is a seine, which is used to contain rather than taking fish by being caught by their gills in the net. Each boat takes one end of the haul seine (which may be as much as one mile in length) and begins to extend the long net out into a huge circle around a chosen section of the sound. When the nets fully extended around the circle the boats then begin to close the ends together and begin to tighten the circle. If the fishermen are successful literally thousands of fish are caught in the closing circle of net.
Sometime it takes several hours to bring the net together into a small enclosure that (if the fishermen are lucky) may contain several tons of many species of fish. The water in this small-enclosed net area literally is working alive with fish of every imaginable species. The catch of fish may often contain some large stingrays and some large sharks. It is not unusual for those sharks to be bull sharks.
As the marketable fish are being netted with long handled dip nets and passed aboard a larger boat for transport to market, one, very brave (foolish) fisherman usually jumps into this seething mass of fish to help with the harvesting. He’s literally brushing up against bull sharks and stingrays as he works. Have no doubt, we do have bull sharks in our inshore coastal waters and according to the shark experts the bull sharks are man eaters that some consider to be more dangerous than the notorious great white shark.
When you read about the preferred habitat for the bull sharks it sounds like you’re reading a description of our own Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds as well as the rivers, creeks and associated purely freshwater streams leading toward the ocean’s waters.
According to Wikipedia “The bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas, also known as the Zambezi shark (UK: Zambesi shark) or unofficially Zambi in Africa and Nicaragua shark in Nicaragua, is a shark commonly found worldwide in warm, shallow waters along coasts and in rivers. The bull shark is known for its aggressive nature, predilection for warm shallow water, and presence in brackishand freshwater systems including estuaries and rivers.
“The bull shark can thrive in both saltwater and freshwater and can travel far up rivers. They have even been known to travel as far up as Indiana in the Ohio River, although there have been few recorded attacks. They are probably responsible for the majority of near-shore shark attacks, including many attacks attributed to other species.Bull sharks are not actually true freshwater sharks, despite their ability to survive in freshwater habitats (unlike the river sharks of the genus Glyphis).”
It’s amazing that, given the ideal sounding habitat we have for the bull shark here in the coastal waters of our state, that we haven’t had more attacks. One fisheries biologist suggest that one reason that our bull sharks don’t exactly cater to a diet of humans is that the favorite foods of bull sharks are the Elasmobranches which are comprised of the cartilaginous (Boneless fish) sharks, rays and skates. If these fish are the preferred diet of bull sharks, then they should have no problem in finding plenty of sting rays and skates in our waters so why bother with bad tasting humans.
Before this column scares some tourists away from our coast this Labor Day weekend, it should be noted that shark attacks (bull or otherwise) are rare along our coast. We “coasties” have bathed in our estuaries for centuries and the above mentioned shark attack is the only one of record that I know of. I feel very safe in swimming and boating in our waters.