They’re baaaaack! Not that they were ever gone; they’ve just kept a low profile. Two eight-foot, 220-pound bull sharks were caught in Maryland near Point Lookout, where the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River meet. And, very close to where I’ve spent my summers growing up, sandy-footed and slightly sunburned, thinking that jellyfish were my biggest enemy in the water.
Three years ago, eight-foot bull sharks were found in the Potomac by Buzz’s Marina. This year, on August 20, fishermen John “Willie” Dean, his son Greg Dean, and Rich Riche were working pound nets to catch menhaden for crab bait. Three Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) biologists happened to join them that morning when an unusual catch was discovered in the shallow part of the net: an eight-foot bull shark.
Marina owner Christy Henderson recalls the flurry of the activity.
“A DNR rep will periodically ride on board to collect fish samples to study,” said Henderson. “They discovered the first shark in their net, which was full of menhaden. There was a lot going on, and they felt that something else was in there but their little skiff could only hold so much.”
“Imagine three people in a small skiff, surrounded by menhaden, and add an eight-foot bull shark. They had to make a second trip back to the net to find out what else was in there.” – Christy Henderson of Buzz’s Marina
After the team unloaded their initial haul, they returned to the net to continue the survey. What they expected to be a ray snagged in the deeper part of the net turned out to be another surprise. It was on this return trip that a second bull shark was discovered, alive but in distress.
“Both sharks were in the net at the same time, they just didn’t know it,” Henderson explained.
Fisherman John “Willie” Dean described the moment that he discovered the second shark. “After finding the first shark, we went back to the net to continue the survey. That’s when we found the second shark in the deeper part of the net, in 18 feet of water.”
One of the sharks was donated to science, and the team was asked to open the shark’s stomach to examine its contents.
Bull sharks, one of the most aggressive and common species of shark, have a unique characteristic: they live primarily in saltwater, but can tolerate fresh water and have been known to venture deep into rivers. (See “Freshwater Sharks.”)
Fish biologist and Monster Fish host Zeb Hogan has experience with the world’s largest freshwater fish. “Several species of fish, including stingray, sawfish, and tarpon can also tolerate freshwater,” he said.
“For example, the giant freshwater stingray, Himantura chaophraya, has been found several hundred kilometers up the Mekong River in Cambodia,” says Hogan.
What drives these top predators into freshwater?
“Adult bull sharks are capable of entering freshwater and have been found up to 1,500 miles up the Mississippi and 2,000 miles up the Amazon,” says Hogan. However, it’s much more likely to find them in saltwater rather than freshwater. “In the areas where I’ve worked, young bull sharks seem to use freshwater areas as nurseries, i.e. places where they are relatively safe from predators and can feed and grow,” Hogan says.
No Reported Shark Attacks in the Chesapeake Bay
Hogan explains it’s important to note that shark attacks are rare; there have been no reports of shark attacks in the Chesapeake Bay despite the fact that at least 12 sharks occur there. Beachcombers on the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River often tout their finds: varying hues of beach glass, shells, and shark teeth; a subtle reminder of what thrives in the brown-green water.
Perhaps jellyfish aren’t my biggest enemy in the water after all, just the most visible.
Read the 2010 NewsWatch story: Eight Foot Sharks Netted in Potomac River