More sea turtles could mean more sharks, expert says
SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — After the fourth reported shark bite of the year along the North Carolina coast, a shark attack expert is speculating a banner year for sea turtle nesting could have something to do with the increased patrols of sharks in the surf.
Facts :Turtle nest numbers
The number of sea turtle nests so far in 2015, with two months to go in the nesting season, and totals for previous years:
Carolina Beach and Kure Beach (Pleasure Island)
2015: 11 / 2014: 4 / 2013: 31 / 2012: 18
2015: 61 / 2014: 31 / 2013: 91 / 2012: 79
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
2015: 35 / 2014: 18 / 2013: 52 / 2012: 30
2015: 38 / 2014: 53 / 2013: 136 / 2012: 85
Source: N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Oak Island Parks and Recreation, Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project, Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center
Sharks are attracted to sea turtles as food and more sea turtles could mean more and larger sharks closer to shore, said George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History. Burgess said larger sharks like bull sharks and tiger sharks could be attracted closer to the surf as food sources — in this case sea turtles — move on and off the shore for nesting between April and September.
« It’s in the best interest of everyone at this time of year and everyone swimming in an area where sea turtles are nesting to be extra careful, » he said. « Lifeguards and beach management should alert and warn people they are in a sea turtle nesting area. »
An 8-year-old boy suffered an apparent shark bite on his leg and foot Wednesday in Surf City. Burgess, who viewed a photo of the boy’s injuries, said the bite mark looked to be typical of a small black tip or spinner shark. The wounds were superficial and not severe, according to the Surf City Police Department, and the boy was taken by his parents to an emergency room for further assessment.
The incident Wednesday came after three shark bites, two of which occurred back-to-back on June 14 in Oak Island and left two teenage victims without left arms. Those severe bites were likely an attack from a bigger bull or tiger shark, Burgess said. Another attack occurred June 11 in Ocean Isle Beach when a 13-year-old girl was bitten on her leg and foot.
« Sharks like bull and tiger sharks can bite right through the shell of a sea turtle, » Burgess said. Sharks enjoy eating sea turtles because of their dense protein and taste, he said. Sharks also patrol the surf at night waiting for sea turtle hatchlings to emerge, he said.
While there are still two months left in the sea turtle nesting season, some volunteer sea turtle organizations in the Cape Fear region are recording increased numbers of nests. Sixty-one nests were recorded in Oak Island as of Thursday, compared to a total of 31 recorded in 2014 for the entire season, said Rebecca Squires of the Oak Island Parks and Recreation Department. Numbers are up in Carolina and Kure beaches as well, according to the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project, and there are twice as many nests in the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area as there were for the entire nesting season in 2014.
Down the coast, in Georgia, the Brunswick News reported there were more nests along the beaches of Jekyll Island and surrounding beaches than last year.
While nesting numbers seem high, it is normal for those numbers to vary each year, said Lawrence Cahoon, biology and marine biology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project volunteer Paul Como wondered if the tropical storm in May brought lots of jelly fish — a sea turtle food source — and the turtles followed them.
Squires said there are a number of reasons turtles could be coming in higher numbers, including conditions from the harsh winter in 2014-15.
« It’s Mother Nature, » Squires said. « We only try and understand. »
Contact Ashley Morris at 910-343-2096 orAshley.Morris@StarNewsOnline.com