Cleaner water off the Rockaways brings back fish, and some unwanted followers
In Gateway National Park at the western tip of Rockaway, a sandy peninsula that is part of Queens, a large, solitary tower overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. At first glance, it resembles the lifeguard towers on Rockaway Beach, a few miles to the east. Yet the resemblance is not exact. The platform is much higher and the ladder is much more difficult to climb. It would take a lifeguard far too long to descend to the beach and make his or her way into the water if a swimmer was in distress.
The occupants of this particular tower were never expected to rush into the water. They took in the expanse of ocean that the high vantage point affords in order to look out for a particular form of aquatic life. If they spotted it, their job was to evacuate the ocean of swimmers by loudly and repeatedly shouting a single word: “Shark!”
In the first half of the 20th Century, shark towers like this one were a common sight on the Rockaways, and shark attacks were not unknown: Rockaway Beach was quickly evacuated after 16-year-old Joseph Salango was bitten on both legs near Beach 103rd Street. It was the hottest day of the summer, but it was the summer of 1950, and no shark attacks have been reported in Rockaway in the decades since. The unused tower in Gateway National Park is the only one left on the peninsula.
Nonetheless, sharks have been spotted near Rockaway increasingly in the past two years. During the Labor Day weekend of 2007, for instance, a baby thresher shark washed onto the shore near Beach 107th Street. And earlier this summer, the body of a 20-foot-long basking shark came ashore on Gilgo State Park, about 30 miles to the east.
Like the sand tiger and dogfish sharks that are sometimes caught by local fisherman, threshers and basking sharks pose no threat to humans. However, the presence of these once-rare creatures is a reminder of the transformation that New York’s maritime ecology has undergone in recent years. This summer, at least one veteran fisherman has reported spotting a great white shark, the kind that inspired the Peter Benchley novel “Jaws,” which was set in a Long Island beach town.
The changes in marine life off the Rockaways began with two significant events in 1972: President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the Clean Water Act, and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection began operating the city’s first retention tank for sewage overflow. Many of the consequences of these efforts are only now becoming evident. Some effects, like the increase in fish populations, have been predictable and benign. Others, from the return of wood-eating worms to the possible return of man-eating sharks, are more surprising—and more problematic.
During large rainstorms, complex sewer systems like New York’s discharge overflow — a combination of rainwater and feces— into nearby shores. This process once caused a significant degree of contamination, but the problem has been almost completely eliminated by the installation of retention tanks that capture and treat the overflow before discharging it. Together with the Clean Water Act, which established guidelines to severely limit the discharge of pollutants into waterways, the result has been much cleaner water.
Cleaner water has led to an increase in local marine life, according to Paul Sieswerda, a marine biologist who worked for 21 years as a curator at the New York Aquarium. Often, however, the improved environment has meant more specimens of less desirable species such as shipworms, which had been largely absent from New York’s polluted shores since the early 1950s.
Because of the damage shipworms cause by boring through underwater wooden pilings, Port Authority Officials were happy to see them go—despite reporting in 1948 that the reduction in their numbers was related to an increase in “sewage and industrial waste” being dumped offshore. Cleaner water brought them back, along with the damage they cause: in late 1995, a wharf in the East River collapsed after its pilings had been eaten away, dramatically announcing the return of the small, wood-eating crustaceans.
As cleaner water has brought back more fish, it also has caused a corresponding increase in their natural predators. “Wherever the food chain is, that’s where the predators are,” said John Malizia, vice president of the New York Sportsfishing Federation. Perhaps the most notable predator to return to New York’s shores is the harbor seal.
Sieswerda first noted the return of harbor seals to New York in 2001. The seals are native to the state, but they had completely disappeared by the late 1800s, largely as a result of hunting. Although seal fur and blubber were once valuable commodities, seals were more often targeted because they depleted the area’s fish populations. “They were in competition with the fisherman,” Sieswerda said, “so there used to be bounties on seals.” Hunters during the 19th Century cut off the dead seals’ muzzles as proof of the number they killed; they were paid about 50 cents for each severed snout.
Hunting water mammals became illegal with the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, but it took nearly three decades for harbor seals to return to New York. In May, an expedition led by Sieswerda to Swinburne Island in the Lower New York Bay spotted 20 of the seals.
While the ban on hunting was vital to the return of the seals, the increase in the fish population was also necessary. “Of course, having a ready food source brings the seals,” Sieswerda explained. However, while harbor seals dine on bluefish and bass, they provide dinner to sharks, particularly great whites.
Fred Carrero, who has lived and fished on Rockaway for more than twenty years, has closely observed the gradual changes to the local fish populations. However, nothing in his experience matched the moment in June when, he says, he saw a great white shark directly off of Rockaway Beach.
For months, Carrero and other area fisherman had been losing lines while fishing for striped bass, bluefish and fluke near Beach 90th Street. In June, one of Carrero’s fishing companions was about to lose another line. He locked his rig, but his line kept getting pulled. “Stripers can’t spool ’em like that,” Carrero said. He turned on his engine and steered his boat in the direction of the fish. “They start chasing him and reeling,” Carrero said. “What pops up? It’s the freaking head of a great white! He’s swallowed everything down, halfway up the leader.”
The line eventually broke, and the shark was never brought to shore. As with many fisherman’s stories, this one has its skeptics. Captain Vinnie Calabro, a charter boat operator who has fished off Rockaway for 43 years, said that the bay has been inundated with sand sharks and threshers this summer, but that he hasn’t seen a great white anywhere nearby since the 1980’s.
Nonetheless, local officials have been cautious. After fisherman reported spotting an eight- to ten-foot shark near Beach 9th Street last August, for instance, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation closed the beach to investigate the incident. However, the beach was reopened when a two-hour search produced no further evidence.
While Parks Department officials have not yet authenticated any great white sightings, Sieswerda said that there is “no question” of the possibility. “That’s a natural progression: seal populations and sea lion populations are what attracts great whites,” he said. “Great whites do eat seals.”
By Hanny Hindi