VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Wednesday's shark bite north of Humiston Beach sparked discussion about the Treasure Coast's near-shore fish activity. In recent days, many beachgoers, lifeguards, anglers, divers and scientists have observed schools of fish feeding — and being fed upon — within wading distance of the shore break.
Vero Beach city lifeguard Erik Toomsoo told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers that he has seen pods of bait fish in the area with sharks following, which is typical this time of year whether or not beachgoers are aware of them.
Capt. Brian Williamson, longtime area fishing guide and owner of Vero Tackle and Marina, said the past three weeks he and his customers have seen a lot of feeding activity along local beaches by predator fish and sharks.
"A lot of my regulars that come by the shop are saying it's been harder to catch bait off the beach lately than it is to catch sharks," Williamson said. "There have been schools of bluefish and Spanish mackerel with jack crevalles mixed in crashing the bait."
Williamson said common bait fish seen this time of year includes mullet and greenies, a common local name for threadfin herring. Aggressive feeders that attack in schools, such as bluefish, mackerel and jacks, generate the kind of commotion that attracts and excites sharks, he said. Sometimes, that feeding activity can take place just a few feet from shore.
"And that's not where you want to be," Williamson said. Although there a few bites, there are countless close calls, he added. Wednesday, about a quarter-mile north of where a shark bit German visitor Karin Ulrike Stei, 47, an angler told Williamson he witnessed a man chest-deep in the water who was splashing in a school of bait fish. Suddenly, the observer saw a huge swirl and big puff of sand come off the bottom next to the man. Williamson said the angler suggested to the man he might want to get out of the water.
"There have been a ton of sharks around," Williamson said.
Williamson said he believes the bait fish are migrating based on seasonal patterns.
Grant Gilmore, a senior scientist with Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science in Vero Beach, said the bait's proximity to shore probably has a lot to do with time of day, as well.
"Time of day is a big driver of bait," he said. "Bait fish will be closer to shore early in morning and late in the afternoon due to penetration of light into the water. When the sun is at low angles to the water, the bait can be more easily seen by the predators below them, and the bait cannot see the predators, so they move toward shore at those times of day."
It is unknown what kind of shark took a large portion of Stei's upper left thigh, but Gilmore has assisted with those types of determinations since the 1970s.
"It could have been one of the most abundant sharks along the beach this time of year — spinner, blacktip or sandbar sharks," said Gilmore, who helped determine the species involved in the area's two fatalities in 2010 and 1998.
"Bull sharks are generally not abundant in the high-energy surf zone along the beaches where sandbar sharks and blacktips are more common. Sandbar sharks will even chase bait up onto the sand and roll back into the water."
Gilmore said sandbar sharks, sometimes called brown sharks, have a noticeably tall dorsal fin, but other than that are very similar in appearance to bull sharks, which are blamed for most attacks.
Mike Palmer, a Port St. Lucie angler who has fished from the beach for sharks for more than 35 years, said there is a possibility Stei's encounter was with a tiger shark.
"Usually by the month of May, the spinners have moved on. We have a few lemon sharks around and the bulls follow along with the tarpon when they show up," said Palmer, who, along with Gilmore, was featured in this year's season opening episode of "River Monsters" television show. "I think the super moon last weekend triggered a seasonal migration of tiger sharks from the Bahamas."
Palmer said the tiger sharks begin to arrive along the Treasure and Space coasts to coincide with the kickoff of the loggerhead sea turtle nesting season. A celestial event such as the Super Moon may have signified the start of such a season.
He said friends of his who compete in shorebound catch-and-release shark fishing tournaments landed and released 17 tiger sharks on Palm Beach County beaches Friday night. Beginning Jan. 1, tiger sharks and great, smooth and scalloped hammerhead sharks are protected from harvest in Florida waters. Last year, the Bahamas announced all Bahamian waters are a shark sanctuary, prohibiting killing of or harvest of all sharks.
"I call the area from about Fort Pierce Inlet up into Brevard County 'Tiger Land,'" said Palmer, referring to the propensity of early summer tiger shark catches he has had along the beaches here.
Gilmore said the main thing swimmers need to remember is that whether seen or not, the sharks are ever present. Try not to be caught in the middle of a school of fish where a bite
may take place as a result of mistaken identity.
"They're not interested in people, but they have always been there," he said.
Called brown sharks
Brown, gray or light brown
Tall dorsal fin
Rounded snout, similar to bull shark
Grow to about 7.5 feet
Feed in shallow water of surf zone
"It's their ocean, not our swimming pool." Mike Palmer, local shark angler
There are several seasonal migrations of fish along the Treasure Coast and all are pursued by a host of predators.
Mullet (silver and striped)
Threadfin herring (greenies)
Menhaden (pogies or bunker)
Sardines (scaled and Spanish)
Glass minnows (anchovies)