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Experts say shark bites are very rare, despite N.Y. headlines

A beach on Fire Island in Islip, N.Y., where two children were bitten.
A beach on Fire Island in Islip, N.Y., where two children were bitten.Seth Wenig/Associated Press/Associated Press

The news that a 13-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl may have been bitten by sharks in New York Wednesday made national headlines. With all of the talk about shark sightings off Cape Cod lately, some beachgoers might wonder: Could I be next?

Experts say it’s highly unlikely.

Angie Carpenter, the town supervisor for Islip, N.Y., held a press conference Wednesday afternoon and said the boy and the girl were treated at local hospitals and, “thank God, are OK.”

“This was an incredibly unusual situation, to say the least,” Carpenter said.

Up until then, there had only been 10 unprovoked shark attacks ever documented in New York, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

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In Massachusetts, there have only been four.

“It’s rare to have these kinds of bites, but they do occur,” Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries said. “It’s something we don’t see a lot of.”

“All you have to do is look at the statistics,” Skomal said. “Shark bites north of the southern states are pretty rare.”

The last fatal shark attack in Massachusetts occurred in 1936, when a 16-year-old from Dorchester died after he was bitten while swimming in Mattapoisett. The only other documented instance of a great white shark biting a swimmer in Massachusetts happened in 2012, off the shores of Ballston Beach in Truro. The 50-year-old man received deep puncture wounds in his legs that required stitches, but he lived to tell the tale.

In 2014, two people kayaking off the coast of Plymouth got a scare when a shark bit through one of their kayaks, and in 2017 a shark bit a stand-up paddleboard off Marconi Beach in Wellfleet.

But the chances of getting bitten by a shark are still extremely low. You’re more likely to die from being struck by lightning (1 in 79,746) than a shark attack (1 in 3,748,067), according to the International Shark Attack File website.

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Leslie Reynolds, chief ranger of the Cape Cod National Seashore, said although the odds are low, people should take precautions. Officials with the National Park Service have been trying to raise awareness and educate beachgoers with signage and flags.

Purple shark warning flags are flown from lifeguard chairs every day to warn beachgoers that sharks are present in the waters along the outer Cape, she said.

“We keep that flag up because there’s always a risk,” she said. “They feed on seals. And whether you see them or not, they’re there.”

Reynolds said Cape Cod National Seashore beaches are closed, on average, about 12 times a season because of a shark being close to shore. There have been four such closures this year, she said.

“Not since — knock on wood — since the Ballston Beach [incident] in 2012 have we had anyone bitten by a shark on the outer Cape,” she said.

In New York, state and local officials are currently investigating the two apparent shark attacks off Long Island. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said investigators are currently analyzing a fragment of tooth to determine the specific species of fish that bit the boy. State beaches reopened for swimming Thursday with additional lifeguards.

Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said it will take two to three weeks to validate the incidents, and if they were indeed shark bites, they will be added to the International Shark Attack File database.

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“These two on the same day are unexpected,” he said. “In general, shark attacks are a consequence of the number of people in the water and the number of sharks in the water.”

Naylor said it’s possible that two juvenile sharks were drawn close to shore while hunting for food and didn’t realize that they were biting a child.

If that’s what happened, “it was a case of mistaken identity,” he said. “Sharks don’t hunt people.”


Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.