Duxbury, Mass: Sand Tiger Central

Duxbury Bay has seen a marked increase in the number of juvenile sand tiger sharks, which use the estuary as a nursery from June through October. Photo courtesy John Chisholm, Mass. Div. of Marine Fisheries.

As a kid growing up in Plymouth, Massachusetts, marine biologist John Chisholm developed a keen love of both fishing and sharks. However, he always figured he’d end up traveling to some other part of the world to study his favorite marine creatures. It’s ironic, therefore, that the Plymouth/Duxbury/Kingston area has recently become the hotbed of sand tiger shark research in the Northeast.

This illustration shows the identifying features of a sand tiger. Courtesy Mass. Div. of Marine Fisheries.

“There has been a big resurgence in the Duxbury Bay population of juvenile sand tigers,” says Chisholm, who with the help of local fishermen has tagged 240 sand tigers since 2007. “It’s the largest nursery area north of Delaware.” Sand tigers used to be quite common in the Gulf of Maine, he adds, but were nearly extirpated in the mid- to late-1900s, mostly due to commercial fishing.

Part of Chisholm’s job as a shark researcher is to educate fishermen on how to recognize sand tigers and how to release them properly.

Sand tigers are large, slow-growing coastal sharks that are found from Florida to Maine. They can reach 10 feet in length and weigh over 300 pounds. Their underslung mouths bristling with row upon row of long teeth give them a fearsome appearance, but sand tigers prey mostly on small fish, squid, crabs and lobsters. Adult female sharks give birth to 2 live pups per year, each measuring about 3 feet long.

The sand tigers that Chisholm and the local fishermen have been catching in recent years are all juveniles measuring 3 1/2 to 5 feet. The sharks migrate to Duxbury Bay in mid- to late June and hang around through October. The relatively shallow estuary system serves as a nursery for the sharks, which feed heavily on menhaden.

Marine biologist John Chisholm poses with a 15-pound sand tiger caught in Duxbury Bay. Photo courtesy John Chisholm, Mass. Div. of Marine Fisheries.

Chisholm was first made aware of the Duxbury sand tigers by recreational fishermen, in particular Dave Lindamood, a fixture on Duxbury’s Powder Point Bridge. Lindamood was catching sand tigers routinely while fishing menhaden chunk baits for striped bass. “Most of the sharks hooked by fishermen cut the line, because striper fishermen typically use mono leaders,” Chisholm explains. “But Dave uses heavy wire, so he was able to land them.” Lindamood was happy to lead Chisholm to the shark hotspots, and together they began tagging and releasing lots of fish. In 2006 they caught 14 in one hour. “Dave really knows where the sharks are,” says Chisholm.

Part of Chisholm’s job as a shark researcher is to educate fishermen on how to recognize sand tigers and how to release them properly. He points out that sand tigers are protected by law, and that fishermen cannot target them. “Before we started educating the public, guys were killing [the sand tigers] because they thought they were spiny dogfish. Now that they know something about them, they are really embracing the fact that this area is unique.”

Information

For more information on the sand tigers of Duxbury Bay, contact the Jones River Landing (781-585-2322) in Kingston, Massachusetts. The Landing maintains a tank where juvenile sand tigers are sometimes studied.

Sand Tiger Facts

  • Sand tigers are considered a threatened species and are protected by law
  • Adults typically reach 10 feet in length, but have been recorded to 14 feet
  • Sand tigers are found in coastal waters throughout the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
  • Females are ovoviviparous, giving birth to 2 pups per year.
  • Sand tigers typically prey on bottom species such as lobsters, crabs, rays and squid.