Expert: White sharks in area 'wouldn't be surprising'
Sharks are among the summer visitors to Midcoast waters, and two recent alleged sightings may suggest a white shark presence in Penobscot Bay. A shark advisory was issued on North Haven Island on July 27 after resident Raymond Beverage used his marine radio to report a great white shark near Pulpit Harbor. On Wednesday, Aug. 15 a property manager at On the Water in Maine vacation homes reported that a tenant and her family believed they had observed a shark from their seaside rental property on Northeast Point in Camden.
While great white sharks are rarely seen in Maine waters, they are not unheard of, according to Dr. Nancy E. Kohler, who heads the National Marine Fisheries Service Apex Predators Program based at Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Narragansett, R.I.
"There is evidence of white sharks in the Gulf of Maine and further north," Kohler said, explaining that there have been confirmed sightings as far north as Newfoundland. "It wouldn't be surprising, especially in the summer and fall months."
North Haven Town Administrator Joe Stone said he issued the shark advisory after Harbormaster Adam Campbell, who is Beverage's son-in-law, expressed concern about a white shark so close to Pulpit Harbor. Stone said he placed a "white sandwich board" outside the North Haven Town Office and added a shark advisory to the homepage of the town website. He described Beverage as "an experienced fisherman" and "not an alarmist."
"Having Raymond's name attached to [the report] gave it credibility," Stone said. "My feeling was it would be remiss not to publicize it."
Islanders initially reacted to the sign with "incredulity."
"[Residents] were convinced it was an April Fool's joke in July," he explained.
Campbell said Beverage was cruising "just outside Pulpit Harbor — a quarter mile at most" with his son Raymond Beverage Jr. and Tara Ignatius when they spotted the juvenile white shark. Beverage alerted Campbell via marine radio about the shark that was "nine or 10 feet long." The pelagic lingered near the surface of the "flat calm" water and seemed nonplussed by the boat as Beverage made several passes by it.
"It was chewing on a piece of driftwood like a plaything," Campbell said, noting that "it had big teeth." He explained that he was immediately concerned about the proximity of the sighting to a small beach where children frequently play in the shallow water.
"I know the bite risk is slim to none," he noted, "but [the shark] was real."
The same day Beverage saw the white shark Campbell said there were "four or five" seals lingering at the high tide mark long after the tide went out, which he said is unusual behavior.
"[The seals] were up by the trees," he explained.
On Thursday, Aug. 16 the warning remained on the North Haven municipal website though Stone said there have been no further reports of shark activity.
Kohler said white sharks are infrequently known to travel in "concentrations," but multiple white sharks have been seen feeding together in prey-rich areas such as the coast of California, where earlier this month groups announced an effort to seek protection for white sharks under the Endangered Species Act.
"We have no evidence of a concentration of whites [in New England]," she said.
White sharks are a "prohibited species in federal waters." Kohler explained that they are illegal to possess dead or alive. If a fisherman catches one inadvertently, he is required to release it in the water, in the same condition as it was found. This makes it difficult to obtain infallible, current data on the white shark population, she said.
Kohler provided a 1985 Southern California Academy of Sciences memoir by John G. Casey and Harold L. Pratt Jr. "White Shark Distribution in the Western North Atlantic." The scientific memoir — which includes data from research and published reports — lists 65 white sharks taken between the Gulf of Maine and Nova Scotia prior to 1983; 45 of the white sharks were documented during the months of July and August. The Mid-Atlantic Bight — from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod — had more white sharks than "any other region in the Western North Atlantic" with 281 documented white shark occurrences predating 1983.
Maine Marine Patrol Deputy Chief Alan Talbot said he has not heard any reports of white shark activity "at [state] level."
Talbot said he would "not be surprised" by sightings of white sharks in Midcoast waters; he cited warmer water temperatures as a possible attraction.
"It's certainly confirmed that white sharks do venture this far north," he said. "It's not like it's never happened."
Barbara Fredericks said she and her family were outside of their rented vacation home on Northeast Point — off Belfast Road — in Camden on Wednesday, Aug. 15 around 11 a.m when her grown son spotted an "18-inch fin" approximately 150 yards from shore. The water was "just like a mirror" as the family watched the fin — a "perfect triangle" — "meandering" back and forth for about 20 minutes before it departed south toward Camden Harbor.
Fredericks lives on Tampa Bay and her family has vacationed at the same Camden home since 2010. She said they've seen a number of seals — including a mother and pup — in the deep water in front of their rental. She said the family has "found the water to be much warmer than in previous years."
The majority of white shark sightings occur in water temperatures from approximately 50 degrees to 75 degrees, according to Casey and Pratt. Water temperatures in Penobscot Bay have lingered between 50 and 60 degrees since June, according to the Northeast Regional Association of Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems.
Captain Barry Gibson has been charter fishing off of Boothbay since 1971. He was editor of Salt Water Sportsman for 23 years, has served extensively on various fisheries-related boards and is chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council's Recreational Advisory Panel, according to the website for his charter company.
Gibson hasn't seen a white shark — but he has "heard some reports."
"A lot of the time it turns out to be a basking shark," he said, adding that he "certainly wouldn't dismiss reports of a white shark close to shore."
Talbot recalled once mistaking the large, dark fin of an ocean sunfish for that of a shark. A sunfish "acts a little different" than a shark, moving slowly through the water. On close observation the fin of an ocean sunfish "flops around" slightly, whereas a shark's does not, he said.
Campbell said he has seen other unusual marine life near North Haven recently. He recalled discovering a "rare" North Atlantic snow crab in one of his lobster traps on Thursday, Aug. 16. In the week prior he saw "some ocean sunfish" out in the bay.
"For a novice it's a big, black fin," he said of the ocean sunfish—or mola-mola — which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and is grayish in color.
Kohler said the Apex Predators Program has "records of 15-plus shark species in Maine," including mako sharks, porbeagles, thresher sharks, blue sharks and dogfish. Commonly mistaken because of their size — up to 35 feet— basking sharks pose no threat to humans and their presence in Maine waters is well-documented, according to Kohler.
Gibson said he sees one or two ocean sunfish annually and has spotted "a lot of harbor porpoises" recently. He noted that he has heard two "credible" reports of leatherback turtles off Boothbay.
"I don't think a fisherman would confuse a great white shark, but a person from Ohio might," he said.
Gibson said an increase in shark sightings could be attributed to a local seal population that —with few natural predators — has burgeoned in last decade. He explained that he has observed "complete shifts" in the distribution of the fish population since he began fishing 42 years ago.
Gibson said the blue sharks and threshers he has seen in 2012 are unusually large and that sightings have been especially frequent, albeit mostly well offshore.
"I think the pelagics are pretty much holding steady at this point," Gibson said.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at email@example.com.