Sharks in the Chesapeake: More likely than thought

258474 Scientists with the Carnegie Institution of Washington have discovered protein in the shells of fossilized mollusks, collected from Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, pictured here. The discovery could lead researchers worldwide to examine fossils in a new way. (WTOP File Photo/Paul Shinkman)
Locals comb the beaches for shark fossils to sell or give to the regional Calvert Marine Museum for further analysis. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
The corners of crab pots like this one had been crushed in by foot-wide jaws, says waterman Kelly Sullivan, who is based out of Baltimore. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
A collection of fossilized shark teeth at the Calvert Marine Museum. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
A megalodon fossilized tooth found at Calvert Cliffs yielded this to-scale rendering of a 37-foot prehistoric shark. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
The last image for many marine prey in the Miocene Epoc - roughly 23 to 5 million years ago. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
Clues on this fossilized skull of a whale indicate it may have been killed by a shark. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
This shark tooth embedded in the skull of a fossilized whale came from the shark that killed it, or a shark that scavenged the meat after it died. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
The ripped vertebrae of this fossilized whale may have come from a prehistoric shark, says Christa Conant with the Calvert Marine Museum. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
The corners of crab pots like this one had been crushed in by foot-wide jaws, says waterman Kelly Sullivan, who is based out of Baltimore. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
A common rig of gear for Chesapeake watermen. Here are the tools of Capt. Pete Ide's trade. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
Capt. Pete Ide behind the wheel of his charter fishing boat. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
The mouth of the Solomons Island harbor. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies is housed here, and its boat is at left. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
The Calvert Cliffs, disappearing toward the horizon, are a rich resource of fossils from sharks and other marine life. Check out the crab pots in the foreground at the mouth of the Patuxent River. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
A common scene on the Chesapeake: A pleasure yacht heads up the bay, passing a commercial fishing boat heading back to harbor. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
Calvert Cliffs in the distance is a rich source of shark fossils. This pound net in the foreground is an example of how watermen catch sharks inadvertently, says Capt. Pete Ide. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
Pound nets like this one rely on the natural instinct of fish to head away from shore when they come across an obstacle. Fish hit the fence of nets starting at the shore, at top, and head toward deeper water. They then run into the "heart," which either funnels them into the trap, or "pound," at bottom, or blocks any retreaters from getting away. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)

Paul D. Shinkman,
Tw: @ShinkmanWTOP

SOLOMONS ISLAND, Md. – Bay captain Pete Ide signals to the oncoming crab boat he’d like to parley.

It’s a sunny day on the Chesapeake Bay and boaters of all sorts are out conducting their business. Ide had been steering his charter boat with his feet while instinctively scanning for fish and eyeing the sonar.

Aboard the crabber are three watermen who look as comfortable on the water as the crabs they haul onboard. The boat slows down along the route of their trap buoys.

“This guy here’s a reporter from Washington, D.C.” Ide calls out, and admits to them he’s about to ask a “stupid” question. “You seen any sharks?”

If similar conversations with other watermen that day were any indicator, these young men would deliver blank stares, then talk about the rare shark they heard someone else talk about that one time in ’87. Or was it 2010?

“Oh yeah! We just got bites out of the crab pots, man. No bull****,” said Kelly Sullivan, based out of Middle River just east of Baltimore.

Sullivan went on to describe how his crew and he had been pulling pots up all month with massive, foot-wide bite marks that caved in the metal cages’ corners. Sullivan, wearing loose-fitting waterproof coveralls, surmised the perpetrator was a bull shark scavenging for either the fish bait, or the crabs they lured.

“We definitely thought about going shark fishing tomorrow,” he says.

Check out the gallery at right for a full tour of sharks in the Chesapeake.

Unlike the nearby ocean coasts, the bay is not a hotbed for shark sport fishing, largely due to the low numbers of sharks that can exist in the water. Bull sharks are among the only species that can withstand salinity levels that low.

Ide, who runs Captain Pete’s Charter Fishing out of Solomons Island, says that during hot summers, like in 2012, fishermen observing large schools of fish will see “something big dashing through them.”

He recounts the 8.5-foot bull shark caught near the Bay Bridge in 1987, when he was a young man starting his commercial fishing career at Scheible’s Motel & Restaurant, a nearby Southern Maryland seafood stalwart.

That year witnessed a hotter summer than the five years before or after, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Biologist David Lowensteiner, from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, says scientists anticipate the warm winter and summer will have some effect on the behavior of marine species, but have no way of predicting specific changes.

Given the general prevalence of sharks in the bay, it’s unusual that there has never been a shark attack here or anywhere else in Maryland, he says.

“In some ways, I think it’s surprising it happens that infrequently,” says Lowensteiner, based on Solomons Island. “Bull sharks are a common visitor to the Chesapeake Bay.”

But unlike hotspots for shark attacks, such as Florida or California, Maryland has a short coastline and very few varieties of sharks, he says. The jellyfish that swarm the bay’s tidal waters during the summer also keep would-be swimmers out of the water, says Ide.

Lowensteiner says a bite mark like the ones Sullivan described on his crab pots are likely from a bull shark, which would be upward of 8 feet long.

“That’s a large shark,” he says, adding there aren’t other species he could think of that would be able to inflict similar damage.

Most watermen catch sharks by accident in their commonly employed “pound nets.” Ide says this is how area local Willy Dean came across his 8-foot specimen in 2010.

Pound nets cash in on the instinct of fish to swim away from the shore when they come across an obstruction. Watermen set poles in the river bottom to feed a fence of net out from the coast. Fish that run into that wall will swim away toward open water, where they come across a second net shaped like a heart. This funnels fish into a trap, called the pound, and prevents them from escaping.

These nets are unregulated, says Lowensteiner, and are rarely documented or have warning lights. This creates a hazard for unwitting boaters and often becomes a snare for sharks.

“Every big shark I’ve known to have been caught on this part of the Chesapeake Bay has come out of the pound net,” says Ide. “It’s very unlikely you would catch one with a hook and line.”

Part of the interest of sharks in the Chesapeake Bay extends well beyond the current age, or even the beginning of recorded history. The nearby Calvert Cliffs are a veritable mine of fossilized bones and teeth for sharks from the Miocene Epoch – roughly 23 million to 5 million years ago – and the other marine animals they encountered.

The Calvert Marine Museum on Solomons Island serves as an entr

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up