I was born and raised in CT along Long Island Sound. I have a masters in Geography and working on secondary social studies Edu masters.
As I write this article, the sun is shining, it’s humid and almost 90 degrees. We’re in the heart of the summer season on the Connecticut shoreline and It also happens to be the first day of Shark Week 2019. Shark week is a week-long television program on Discovery Channel that features a number of shows and documentaries about Sharks. Shark Week has been on television for over 30 years now and has developed quite a following, including me. Growing up in Connecticut, which isn’t too far away from the fictional setting of Peter Benchley’s infamous Jaws, I have always wondered if there were sharks in Long Island Sound and the answer is yes!
First, If you are unfamiliar with Long Island Sound, it is a tidal estuary south of Connecticut, east of New York City, North of Long Island and west of Rhode Island. The sound is just over 1,200 square miles and at it’s deepest is 63 feet. The sound is a transition zone between land and ocean. The Connecticut river empties into the sound while the Atlantic Ocean flows in and out with the tides. Typically estuaries and other ecological transition zones are teeming with biodiversity and Long Island Sound is no different. However, due to the high population density around the sound and unfortunate pollution into its waters, the sound has had issues with dead zones in the past.
Long Island Sound
Types of Sharks in Long Island Sound
So what types of sharks live in Long Island Sound? According to a 2011 UCONN publication Sharks in Long Island Sound by Dave Sigworth, there are four species that call Long Island Sound home. These four species include the sand tiger shark, brown sharks, smooth dogfish sharks, and spiny dogfish sharks. Although these are the species that call Long Island Sound home, the sound is open to the Atlantic Ocean and we cannot rule out transient populations of other shark species throughout the year. One possible example of this transient population just made national news in the spring of 2019 when ping from a GPS tracker of a Great White Shark named Cabot registered off the coast of Greenwich, Connecticut. This shark was tagged by researchers at OCEARCH. You can even follow their tagged sharks on their app. This was the first recorded evidence of a white shark in Long Island Sound. However, there are times when the GPS trackers are off by miles and miles, which could have happened with Cabot since he registered again off the south coast of Long Island just hours later. The GPS trackers will only register a location when the shark breaches the water, which means that swimming patterns have to be interpolated based on where and when the shark surfaces. With all of that said, I don’t think it would be that crazy to have a great white shark in Long Island Sound one day. Twenty years ago it was unusual to see a great white off of Cape Cod, now there are sightings multiple times a week on the cape during the summer months. In fact, many of the sharks that OCEARCH have tagged were first tagged off the coast of Cape Cod. The reason why sharks have returned to Cape Cod has a lot to do with the recovering seal populations, which is a vital food source for the sharks. As we, hopefully, work on cleaning up Long Island Sound and increasing biodiversity, there’s a possibility of more predatory marine life to enter the sound, which includes sharks.
The Sharks of Long Island Sound
Sand tiger sharks can grow up to 10 feet in length and they have teeth that are always showing. These sharks are the largest native sharks in Long Island Sound. Mystic Aquarium even has a few sand tiger sharks on display.
Brown Sharks are also known as "Sandbar Sharks" can grow as big as eight feet. As their nickname suggests, they are coastal sharks that are found near sandbars, shallow waters, and mouths of rivers. This makes Long Island Sound a perfect habitat for them.
Smooth Dogfish Sharks are also coastal sharks that can grow up to five feet long. They are the most common sharks along the Atlantic east coast. Also the inspiration for Delaware's famous Dogfish Head Brewery!
Spiny Dogfish Sharks are one of the most studied sharks in the world. They grow to four feet long and can live up to 40 years old. They're called "Spiny" because they have small spines in front of their dorsal fins to prevent predators from attacking. Although the spines are not poisonous, they are covered in a lot of bacteria, which can be just as bad!
(The above information was found in Dave Sigworth's Sharks in Long Island Sound)
Shark Attacks in Connecticut?
So now that we’ve discovered that sharks do make Long Island Sound home, naturally you (and I) must be wondering if there have ever been any shark attacks in Connecticut? The answer is actually YES! However, the list of attacks is very short. According to Shark Attack Data, there have been three unprovoked shark attacks and one provoked shark attack in Connecticut since the late 1800s. All these attacks were non-fatal. The first attack happened off the coast of Branford, CT in 1878 and is considered a “Provoked” attack because the man was bitten on the leg by a shark caught in his fishing net. The next attack happened in 1890, when a man’s arm was cut by a shark while he was treading for clams off the coast from Bridgeport, CT. Then in 1933, a woman’s foot was bitten while swimming in the Mystic River. Finally, the last shark attack in Connecticut was recorded in 1960 off the coast of Bridgeport, where a man’s arm was cut by a shark while he was “free diving”. So while there have been a couple of shark attacks through the years, all injuries were very minimal and there hasn’t been a shark attack in decades.
Compare these four attacks over a 140 year period to Florida's 828 unprovoked shark attacks since 1900! I think Long Island Sound is still a pretty safe place to swim.
Reminder to RESPECT Sharks
I would like to end this article with a reminder that we should respect all sharks, just like we should respect all animals. These scary yet beautiful creatures are vital players in our coastal ecosystems and although some interactions between sharks and humans turn out badly, they are actually very uncommon. Humans are terrestrial beings and therefore are guests in the oceans, keep that in mind when swimming at the beach this summer. Enjoy every minute of it but remember to stay alert and give nature it's space! And of course, don't forget to enjoy Shark Week!
Brian Dooling (author) from Connecticut on July 31, 2019:
Thanks for the comment Larry! It is scary but the more we learn about sharks of all types and understand why they are where they are, they'll become less scary.
Larry Slawson from North Carolina on July 31, 2019:
Very interesting. Never really thought about them being that far north. Scary! Haha. Thank you for sharing!