SB Experts Offer Water and Woods Midsummer Safety Reminders

The summer is a great time to be outdoors — but it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and stay safe, specifically when it comes to sharks and ticks.

As we approach the middle of summer, many people are enjoying the sights and sounds of being outdoors. But there are some precautions to consider with all that activity in the water and in the woods. Luckily, we have experts at Stony Brook who can advise you and your family on how to stay safe during the summer months.

In the Water

In the past few weeks, there have been at least five shark bites in Long Island waters. Shark sightings, and even bites, have become more common in recent years. And while all the victims in these most recent incidents suffered only minor injuries, it’s still important to be cautious when you head into the water.

Christopher Paparo, manager of the Marine Sciences Center at Stony Brook Southampton, breaks down why we are seeing an uptick in shark sightings along the East Coast and on Long Island and offers some ways to protect yourself.

Why is there an increase in shark sightings and bites on Long Island?

There are so many variables that it’s difficult to give just one. One of the main reasons is that our waters are cleaner, and sharks are a sign of a healthy ecosystem in any environment. They will not live in polluted waters or in a place where there is no food. Another reason is the abundance of bunker fish, a source of food for these sharks. Bunker fish are usually spotted by mid-May. But this season, for some reason, they showed up later — around the Fourth of July — which is why we had some shark bites that weekend.

Drone photo captures a spinner shark, a school of cownose rays, and bunker fish off the South Shore.
Drone photo captures a spinner shark, a school of cownose rays, and bunker fish off the South Shore. (Photo by Christopher Paparo)

Other factors that could contribute to the increase in shark sightings include the current and the wind, which can bring baitfish closer to the shores on some days or push them further offshore on other days. In addition, several shark species that are local to our waters are protected due to overfishing. Some of those protected sharks have started to show signs of recovery in our waters.

Sharks are constantly present in our waters. My colleagues and I tag them all year long. One reason we’re hearing about more shark sightings is that more people are looking for them. More lifeguards are searching the waters to keep people safe with technology such as drones.

We have to remember that shark bites happen because they are looking for fish food. The sharks we see lack the jaw structure and teeth to seriously harm a person.

You mentioned a healthy ecosystem. Do you think seeing sharks is actually a sign of hope for ocean conservation efforts in our area?

SoMAS boat with captured shark.
School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences boat with a captured shark. (Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University)

Yes. The presence of sharks in our waters means that our environment is healthy enough to support them. There would be something off in the environment if there were no sharks here. It could indicate that we’ve caught all the sharks, but it’s more likely that the water quality isn’t great. When we see sharks in our local waters, we know it’s a good nursery ground for other species that sharks feed on, like fish, crabs, shrimp and clams. It’s definitely a sign of healthy waters.

Does this mean swimming in the waters off the South Shore is unsafe?

No. There are risks in everything we do, but the likelihood of spotting a shark or being bitten by one is slim. I understand why people are afraid of swimming, but our waters are safe.

Sometimes there’s mass hysteria when there is a shark bite or sighting. You hear it on the news or on social media. People panic and don’t want to go in the water. However, there is some misinformation. When they shut down swimming off Fire Island a few weeks ago, lifeguards thought they saw a school of 50 sharks. However, it was actually a school of black drum fish.

Education about sharks, specifically what to look for, is important for those monitoring the waters as well as the public. People should also be educated about the importance of sharks in the environment and the problems that sharks have faced and still face today.

What should someone do if they spot a shark?

If you’re on land, alert a lifeguard or someone of authority. They might be able to help calmly clear out the water. If you yell “Shark,” you risk causing panic, and more people could get hurt.

If you’re in the water, get out. Try not to splash around or draw too much attention to yourself. The bunker fish sharks often feed on splash around the water’s surface, so sharks home in on those movements.

Are there ways to avoid a shark encounter?

Be aware of your surroundings and avoid swimming in schools of fish. As I mentioned, sharks look for baitfish. If you’re in the middle of a school of bunker fish, you’ll be in the shark’s way. Also, avoid water that is dark and murky.

Seeing bird activity on top of the water could indicate that fish are on the surface. If you see this, avoid swimming or stay away from that particular water area.

And if you’re on vacation and see seals, avoid those waters. Seals are common in areas like Cape Cod, but they are also shark food.

Do you have any advice for parents who may be worried about family outings to the beach this summer?

Once again, be aware of your surroundings. Stay in a lifeguarded area of the beach and look for any warning signs near the lifeguard stand. If the flags are up, avoid swimming and don’t allow your children to enter the water.

Look for those schools of fish. Also, swim during the daylight hours, when it’s easier to see.

In the Woods

Whether you’re going on a family hike, camping in the woods or camping on the beach, checking yourself and your family for ticks is essential. If ticks go undetected, they can transmit Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

At the Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center located at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, a registered nurse answers Help Line calls about tick removal, when to seek medical attention and other tick-related questions. Anna-Marie Wellins, DNP, a medical advisory panel member for the resource center, explains the tick situation on Long Island and how to protect you and your family.

Long Island is a sort of breeding ground for ticks. How can someone reduce their exposure?

The safest thing to do is stay on the pavement! When hiking or exploring nature, remain in the middle of the path. Ticks are found in the brush and grass along the trail edges. Pull socks over your pant legs and tuck in your shirt to create a barrier with your clothing. Don’t wear shorts!

Spray your shoes, socks and pants with permethrin and wear insect repellent on your skin. We recommend a product with DEET (no more than 30 percent) or oil of lemon eucalyptus.

Choose light-colored clothing when getting dressed or packing for a hike. This makes it easier to see if ticks are on your clothes. And don’t forget the lint roller to capture them on the sticky pad.

When you come in from the outdoors, immediately put your clothes in the dryer. Heat will kill any ticks, so keep it on high for about 15 minutes. After that, you can wash your clothes normally. You should also take a shower immediately and perform a tick check at night and again in the morning. Be sure to check your children and pets as well.

The Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center has a tick-borne disease handbook.
The Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center has a tick-borne disease handbook. (Photo courtesy of Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital)

Why are ticks so prevalent on Long Island?

Many environmental factors are contributing to Long Island’s increased tick population. There are a lot more deer that carry ticks. And there are more deer overall because developers are building on land that was once their natural habitat. There are also fewer natural predators.

In addition to the deer tick, which carries Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, the lone star tick, which doesn’t transmit Lyme but does transmit other tick-borne illnesses and used to only be found in the South, is now found throughout the Northeast.

Where are people most likely to encounter ticks?

Ticks can be found in the woods, trails, tall grasses and leaf litter. Ticks can also be found in your backyard while gardening or mowing your lawn. It’s important not to let your guard down, even in your own yard. And while ticks cannot be found in the sand at beaches, they can be found in tall grasses — ticks like warm, damp and moist environments. If the temperature is above 40 degrees, even in the winter, you should take precautions.

What should someone do if they find a tick on their body?

If you find a tick on yourself or a loved one, take action right away. Don’t wait for a professional to remove it. Take a clear, in-focus picture of the tick with your phone to try to identify the species for any necessary treatment. Then, using fine-tipped tweezers, place them close to the skin and grab the tick at its head or just above it. Pull upward with a slow and steady motion. If the tick’s head stays in, that’s okay, as that is not where the bacteria lives, and it will eventually work its way out. Disinfect the bite area with alcohol or soap and water.

Save the tick in a pill vial with alcohol or a baggie. Label it with the date and where you found it on your body to show a healthcare provider, if needed. Monitor your health for 30 days and watch for a rash. If you develop a rash, fever, aches, fatigue or headache, seek care from a medical professional.

Are there signs and symptoms to watch for that may indicate Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses?

The first 30 days after a known tick bite are the most crucial. You should watch for an expanding rash at the site of the bite. While not everyone will get a rash, if you do, that is a definitive sign of Lyme disease, and you will need antibiotics. You should also look for fever, fatigue, headache, achy or swollen joints or flu-like symptoms. If symptoms occur after a tick bite, call your healthcare provider and tell them you were exposed to ticks.

If you have a tick-related question, you can call the Help Line at (631) 726-TICK. Click here for more information from the Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. If you would like a free tick removal kit, click here to provide your contact information and request one.

-Christine McGrath

Example of a tick removal kit available at the Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center.
Example of a tick removal kit available at the Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center. (Photo courtesy of Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital)

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