Great White Sharks Return to New York Harbor

Discovery Channel’s 'Shark Week' highlights the predator's rebound in less-poluted city waters.

July 25, 2017 5:00 am

If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.

After centuries of pollution decimated marine life, a new Discovery Channel Shark Week special highlights the resurgence of sharks in New York City waters.

This is no Sharknado movie. The return of great whites to New York City may give you even more reasons to visit the nearby beaches this summer. Not for the carnage, but for the marine life.

“New York is becoming a very exciting place in terms of the ocean,” Craig O’Connell, a shark biologist working on the Shark Week special, told RealClearLife. “We’re getting to see the resurgence of great white sharks, and also marine mammals. We’re here at the perfect time to witness it.”

Municipal improvements — like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $20 billion-dollar initiative to clean up 520 miles of coastline — are vital for New York’s waterways, which have been assaulted by human influence as far back as record shows.

Author Betsy McCully wrote in her 2006 book City at the Water’s Edge that New York had the “dubious honor of standing alone” among the great cities of America in its “failure to provide a sewage treatment and disposal program.”

The sewage problem led to a pollution of New York waterways so critical that in the late 19th century, people died of typhoid and dysentery after bathing in or eating out of local waters. The stench was horrific. Beaches were closed as billions of gallons of sewage pumped daily into the rivers, choking them of their oxygen, spreading out into the ocean and suffocating entire ecosystems.

Legal and illegal dumping throughout the 19th and 20th century helped turn the city waterways into a noxious wasteland. Gotham’s sharks suffered with the rest of the wildlife that used to flourish in New York, which was once considered the “capital of American angling.”

Today, billions of gallons of untreated sewage still flow into the waters annually, but the water quality in the harbor is cleaner than any time in the last 100 years, according to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection. John Waldman, an aquatic conservation biologist and leading environmental expert in the city, confirmed that the health of the water has come back “in a huge way.”

“You’re not going to have pristine conditions with 8 million people living in New York City, but it’s come back in a huge way,” Waldman told RealClearLife, citing the Clean Water Act of 1972 as instrumental in sparking positive change in the water system.

The water issues aren’t completely solved, Waldman said. The city will face an ongoing sewage management problem for the rest of its existence. But the resurgence of marine life, including a humpback whale spotted feeding in the Hudson last November, is vital for the health of ecological communities and food chains.

“To have them back again is, I think, a wonderful symbol of a natural order being restored. And yes, it’s possible that someone may have their finger nipped or even die from a shark attack, but that’s always been the case,” Waldman said. “It’s like going outside when there’s a thunderstorm, you could get hit by lightning. The odds are extremely low.”

It’s important to view the presence of sharks as a positive — not a deterrent, O’Connell said.

“I think a lot of people are going to hear that there are sharks in New York waters. And I think a lot of people are going to become terrified at that fact,” O’Connell said. “Yes, they’re coming back, they’ve always been there, and whether they like it or not, people have most likely been in the water with sharks and not known it … We should be happy that there are more sharks here.”

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