Officials warn of dangerous bull sharks in Lake Pontchartrain

Published: Jul. 26, 2016 at 8:26 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 27, 2016 at 8:07 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - If you're thinking about swimming in Lake Pontchartrain, you may want to consider this.

Summer is prime time for young bull sharks to feed in the lake.

Sam Barbera has a job most sportsmen would envy. He is a veteran fisherman on a mission.

"We're trying to put out multiple baits at different depths to give them a number of looks," he said.

Bit this isn't just any prey, his goal is to hook one of the deadliest animals on earth, a bull shark.

"I think we've all reeled in a couple," Barbera said.

Up until recently, very little was known about bull sharks and their activities in Lake Pontchartrain. Sightings are rare and few attacks were documented.

But two years ago, seven-year-old Trent Trentocosta was attacked about three miles off the South Shore, sort of a bull shark wake up call.

"I felt a current by my stomach and said nothing was gonna happen to me and then the shark bit me," Trentocosta said at the time.

Trentocosta was lucky the bite wasn't worse. Judging by the size of the bite, he was likely attacked by a small bull shark between four-to-five feet long and that bull is not alone.

"Most in the lake are juveniles between two and three years old," said biologist Ashley Ferguson with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

They want to learn more about lake bull sharks, their sizes and migration patterns. On this July day, Barbera thinks he's hooked a big one, near the Seabrook Hole, which runs as deep as 90 feet.

The summer is prime bull shark season in the lake and fisherman for the state are busy catching, tagging and performing minor surgery on sharks that used to swim freely and largely unseen.

Now, they are seen, electronically thanks to tiny transmitters placed in their stomachs.

"There's a unique code that will let us know which shark is out there," said Ferguson. "Those transmitters have a relatively short range and are picked up by dozens of receivers across Lake Pontchartrain.

Two years ago, the state tagged 18 bull sharks, which they are still tracking. That tracking shows the young bull sharks move into and out of the lake through the Rigolets, Chef Pass and Seabrook, to eat and for protection from other less freshwater-tolerant sharks.

"They are young enough to have umbilical scars, so they are new," said Ferguson.

The bulls move in during the summer and move out into the gulf, during the fall and winter. If you catch a tagged shark, state biologists want you to be careful and let it go.

"We put a tag on their back. It says please release. There's a phone number to call and we will let them know they got a tagged shark," Ferguson said.

Attacks on humans are rare. Until the boy was bitten in 2014, there was only one attack attributed to a shark, more than 100 years ago, near the Rigolets. That one was fatal.

"I think it was the amount of time it took to get to the person, because they were swimming so far out," Ferguson said.

So where are the hotspots? Seabrook is one, within a half-mile of a popular swimming beach. It's a prime spot for sharks because it's a deep hole and holds a lot of fish, making it productive for man and beast.

"We saw a couple jumping the other day, spinning. It was neat," Barbera said.

State tracking shows the other bull shark hotspot is Goose Point, off Fontainebleau State Park, not far from another popular swimming beach. But they can be just about anywhere.

There are plenty of sharks out there and the state is determined to track as many as they can. They have tagged about 25 in the last five years.

State biologists consider the bull shark an important species to study, because as one of two main apex predators, and it's presence is an indicator of a healthy lake. The other apex predator is the garfish.

If you want to track bull shark patterns in Lake Pontchartrain, click here.

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