A great white shark detected in waters off Maine could be a sign that the big fish will become a more common sight in the years to come, say scientists who study sharks in New England.
White sharks are near the northern edge of their range along the Maine coast, though they are not commonly seen in the area. One of the sharks was spotted in the waters off Kennebunkport in the summer of 2016, sparking interest in finding out how many live off Maine.
University of New England marine scientist James Sulikowski has set out to answer that question, and he's making his first findings public. Tracking devices discovered a different, 12-foot great white about 1.5 miles off of Old Orchard Beach in September of this year, he said.
The next step is to find out if the sharks are feeding and reproducing in the area or just transiting through, Sulikowski said. But he said warming ocean waters in the Gulf of Maine and the discovery of separate sharks in consecutive summers suggests the white sharks could be making Maine a more frequent home.
"If I was a betting person, I would suspect that in the next three or four years, or maybe sooner, there's going to be a greater presence of these sharks up here," Sulikowski said. "Whether our area is sort of a stop-over and they spend a couple days here or a couple months is what we're trying to figure out."
Sulikowski collaborated with Greg Skomal, senior scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, in searching for white sharks off Maine this past summer. The shark they spotted was one that had been previously fitted with a tracking device by Skomal off Cape Cod in 2016.
Skomal said five of the white sharks he has tagged have moved north to the coast of Maine during the summer and early fall since 2012. He agreed with Sulikowski that more data are needed to determine how many white sharks head into the Gulf of Maine as well as when and for how long. They plan to collaborate again in summer 2018.
White sharks live all over the world's oceans and are the largest predatory fish on the planet. They were made famous in the blockbuster movie "Jaws," and while they make more fatal attacks on humans than any other shark, such attacks are rare. There were 35 in the world from 1990 to 2013, according to a database kept by the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.
White shark numbers in the north Atlantic Ocean have increased in recent years, said John Mandelman, the chief scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. He attributed that to warmer waters and successful conservation measures. It has been illegal to harvest white sharks in U.S. waters since 1991.
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But Mandelman said it's unlikely to see large numbers of white sharks off Maine, in part because they gather in big numbers in places where there are larger colonies of seals to feed on, such as outer Cape Cod.
"With warming Gulf of Maine, there might be more of a prevalence of these animals, but they are still ultimately going to follow the food," Mandelman said.