Local News

Young bull sharks find NC sounds inviting

Posted July 1, 2015 7:34 p.m. EDT
Updated July 2, 2015 10:13 a.m. EDT

— While seven people have been bitten by sharks off the North Carolina coast in the past month, an expert says people are increasingly likely to encounter a shark in the state's sounds.

Between 1969 and 2011, only nine juvenile bull sharks were found in Pamlico Sound, but researchers have documented 50 young bull sharks in the sound in the last four years alone.

"The main thing that's changed is the temperature's gotten hotter," said Chuck Bangley, a researcher at East Carolina University.

In the last decade, Bangley said, water temperatures in Pamlico Sound have increased about 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers don't have an explanation for the temperature increase, but they're seeing the effects.

"If the water gets in the 75-degree or higher range for a lot of May, you'll begin to see a lot of juvenile bull sharks show up in the area," he said.

The young sharks will leave in the fall for warmer waters then return again next year, he said.

While people enjoy the sound for the relatively calm waters, young sharks use it as shelter from larger predators, Bangley said.

"Large sharks will come into the sound, but for the most part, what you're looking at are 5, 4 feet or less," he said. "They're also not species that typically eat large prey."

Bull sharks are blamed for biting more people than any other species of shark. Known for their aggressive nature, their bite is particularly strong.

"Even those accidental bites, because we're talking about a big, powerful animal, can do a lot of damage," he said.

Researchers are still collecting data on the number of bull sharks in Pamlico Sound, but Bangley said their presence indicates the shark population, which had been on the decline, is reversing course. It also is a sign of a healthy ecosystem in the sound, he said.

"The fact that bull sharks are pupping in North Carolina suggests the waters are clean, there's an abundant food source for them and there's plenty of habitat," he said.