Sharks in the Chesapeake Bay!

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Updated: September 21, 2012
sandbar shark

Sharks in the Chesapeake Bay!
The most common shark species seen in the lower Bay during summer and fall is the sandbar shark. The Chesapeake is a nursery ground for them so most sandbar sharks seen here are juveniles. The young range from 2 to 3 feet in length and adults are up to 8 feet long. Sandbar sharks are dark gray above and white below. A ridge runs between the two dorsal fins. The bullnose shark is similar to the sandbar but lacks the ridge between the two dorsal fins. Although bullnose sharks can grow up to 12 feet, those visiting the Bay are usually less than 6 feet.

Two smaller sharks in the Bay are the smooth dogfish and spiny dogfish. Both species are only 2 to 3 feet long and travel in schools. The smooth dogfish is gray to brown in color and both dorsal fins are about the same size. Spiny dogfish is quickly recognized by the spine in front of each dorsal fin. For the most part, sandbar and dogfish sharks pose little, if any, danger to humans.

Sharks in the Chesapeake are found mostly in the lower Bay but some species do travel into the brackish water of the middle Bay.

The sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus), sometimes referred to as the thickskin shark, is the most common coastal shark in Virginia and is a routine visitor of the Chesapeake Bay during early spring and into late fall. This shark can be identified by a rounded snout, a large upright first dorsal fin, and by an interdorsal ridge. Color varies from bluish grey, brownish grey, to bronze with a paler or white underside. A rather stout shark ranging from about 4-6 ft. in length at maturity, the sandbar shark is considered large for a coastal shark. Related species include the dusky shark, the bignose shark and the bull shark.

Having a cosmopolitan distribution, sandbar sharks are found in tropical to temperate waters throughout the world. In North America it ranges from New England to the Florida Keys and is often found along the bottom in shallow coastal waters such as bays, estuaries, harbors, and river mouths. Every other year females bear an average of 9 pups in the summer. The sandbar shark has an annual migration cycle along North and South America. The adults form segregated schools (males and females) while the young form mixed-schools when leaving the nursery grounds.

Being a predator, the sandbar shark prefers fresh fish such as sardines, shad, menhaden anchovies, eels, barracuda, mackerel, groupers, croakers, flounders, skates, stingrays, squid, shrimp, crabs, mollusks and other smaller sharks. Although large, common in human swimming areas, and having adequate teeth, the sandbar shark has never been incriminated in a human attack.

Sandbar sharks do not have many natural enemies. Although pups are sometimes preyed upon by tiger sharks and adults by great whites, the most common and potentially dangerous predators are humans. Due to the fact that it takes 3 to 13 years for these sharks to mature and that they can only reproduce every other year, their populations can be easily over fished to dangerous low levels. Recreational fishing does little damage compared to commercial fisheries. These pose the greatest threat, trying to fulfill the demand for meat for human consumption, hides for leather, and livers for vitamin rich oils. Abundances of adolescent and adult sandbar sharks in Virginia have declined dramatically by nearly two-thirds, highlighting the need for effective fishing management.

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