The Indian River Lagoon,”The Most Significant Bull Shark Nursery on the U.S. Atlantic Coast”

Baby bull shark navigates shallow waters. (Photo public files.)
Baby bull shark navigates shallow waters. (Photo public files.)

Having grown up in Martin county water skiing, tubing, swimming, boating and fishing, I was surprised to learn as an adult that the Indian River Lagoon is one of the most important bull shark nurseries along the US Atlantic Coast.

Obviously the young sharks must display a different behavior than some of the older ones we learn about, as bull sharks are listed in the top sharks that attack humans. From what I have read, there have been no reported attacks in the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon itself.

Personally, I was fascinated with sharks as a kid, (I am from the movie JAWS generation,) and know they play an important role in the food web and in the health of our oceans. I respect them which, yes, holds a certain element of fear. But there is no fear to be had for the many baby and juvenile sharks living in the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.

Netted bull shark juvenile to be studied and returned to the IRL. (Public photos)
Netted bull shark juvenile to be studied and returned to the IRL. (Public photos)

In 2011 a study was published by The American Fisheries Society by Tobey Curtis, Douglas Adams, and George Burgess entitled “Seasonal Distribution and Habitat Association of Bull Sharks in the Indian River Lagoon, Florida: A 30 Year Synthesis.” The study covers years 1975-2005. Impressive!

Major points of interest for me were:

1. In the spring, female bull sharks enter the lagoon through inlets, and have live baby sharks in the northern lagoon. The females’ gestation period is around 10-11 months. She does not enter the lagoon until she is ready to have birth and will bear between 1-13 “pups.” She leaves afterwards. The pups are on their own and will eat seagrass critters, rays, fishes, turtles, and even take chunks out of bottle-nosed dolphins.

2. These baby sharks show “site fidelity,” (they stay in certain areas,) but beginning  in October or November they appear to migrate south. Catch and releases of these young sharks have been documented all the way south to the St Lucie River although the majority were found in the area of the Sebastian Inlet.

3. Sharks under three feet represent the “dominant size-class” in the lagoon.

4. “Sharks greater than about 190 centimeters, or just over 6  feet, appear to have reached the size at which they leave the nursery and fully transition to offshore adult habitats.” Yikes! 🙂 Sharks this size are thought to be sexually mature but data is sparse, and some studies note up to 15 years for sexual maturity.  (Some of the largest documented bull sharks in the ocean are 9-11 feet and over 500 pounds and are estimated to live from 20 to 30  years but no one really knows yet.)

5. Bull sharks are tolerant of both salt and fresh water and known to go far up into the rivulets of estuaries.

6. Bull sharks slow growth and reproduction rate means they do not populate easily or rapidly.  Bull sharks, as many sharks, are on the edge of “threatened status,” and should be protected.

7. Because baby bull sharks use inshore and nearshore systems like the SLR/IRL that are “suffering from dramatic anthropogenic alteration and habitat loss, this potentially affects the survival of the species.

8. Bull shark juveniles are frequently observed at heated power plant outfalls, brackish and saltwater creeks, around piers, over seagrass flats, open and muddy bottoms and in dredged channels.

9. The authors note that “although seagrasses in some areas are stable or increasing, seagrasses have declined up to 70% in some areas over a 50 year period. (And this paper was compiled before the crash of 60% seagrasses that occurred from 2011 to 2013 in the northern and central lagoon due to the super and brown tide algae blooms.)

Adult bull shark. (Public photo/Pinecrest.)
Adult bull shark. (Public photo/Pinecrest.)

10. The bull sharks of the Indian River Lagoon are their own genetic stock, unique from bull sharks of other areas.

The is no reason to be afraid and every reason to be fascinated! If you catch a baby bull shark please release it back into the lagoon. He or she has a long  journey ahead to clean up our oceans and fulfill its destiny as a top predator of the sea. 

Adult bull shark swimming. (Public photo for "wallpaper." )
Adult bull shark swimming. (Public photo for “wallpaper.” )


Seasonal Distribution and Habitat Association of Bull Sharks in the Indian River Lagoon, Florida: A 30 Year Synthesis: (

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FWC/Bull Sharks: ( 




23 thoughts on “The Indian River Lagoon,”The Most Significant Bull Shark Nursery on the U.S. Atlantic Coast”

  1. Interesting article on our dangerous friends the sharks. I hope you have seen the articles on the Shark Industry in Martin County in The History of Martin County, 1998 Ed.,at pages 258 and 374. The sharks, of course, are happy, those days have ended.

  2. I swam in the IRL last year in June and saw several baby Bulls, or as I liked to call them during the swim… “Cobia”. We are set to do the swim again in July this year and I have to admit, I am still apprehensive. I have no issue with Bulls, but I sure do not want to meet the teeth of one either.

    1. I hope you’ll let me know how it goes. I know it is hard not to think of them as one would in the ocean but supposedly it is different…
      Sorry I have not hooked up with you yet…no pun intended. :)Thanks Cobia

  3. I was swimming at fort pierce inlet a few days ago out past where I could touch, and a huge bull shark came up and sniffed me. It hung out for a few seconds then swam off. I’m so thankful he didn’t bite. The water was crystal clear, so the shark knew I wasn’t on the menu. Solid 10′ 500-600 pounds, and as round as they can get.

    1. Holy ——- ——-!!!! Now that would be something to experience. Getting sniffed by a bull shark. I believe you must have tremendously good karma and that bull sharks do have better things to hunt out than humans. :)Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Caught one in port st john (brevard county indian river) a few weeks ago. Really neat. I was not frightened at all. Yes I released it back. At first thought it was a black tip but after much research online realized it was a bull. Proud to say I held one of the most dangerous sharks. Thanks for the article as I didn’t know they were threatened. I have seen other posts recently of some caught as well so maybe its getting better for them.

  5. I was fishing just outside Manatee Pocket last night. The pier was surrounded by spawning snook. Suddenly they all vanished. That’s when I saw what I’m pretty sure was a bull shark coasting through, had to be close to 6 foot. Then I started hearing dolphins blowing in the distance. So I packed it in for the night. Big predators scare away all the snappers and sheepshead.

  6. I was always afraid of sharks. I saw one when I was fishing with my dad on our old Edgewater boat. I was a kid and I think this trauma hunts me till these days.

  7. I live on the Banana River and enjoy the wildlife. Recently, I repaired my dock and noticed the wide variety of fish. There are mullet, lady fish, sheepshead, porgy, red fish, catfish, manatee, dolphins, turtles, sting rays, tarpon, crabs, horseshoe crab and bull sharks. The purpose of writing is that in the past 3 days after living on the river for 5 years, I just saw 2 sharks. The first was over 6 feet hanging out under my dock an the second was 3+feet swimming around the dock.

    1. DP this is such great news! Wonderful!!!! The water must be in pretty good shape and there must be something to eat to have so much varied life. I am happy for you and hope this continues. Thanks for letting me know; It is inspiring!

  8. … I just realized how uppity my comment sounded, that’s not what I intended at all! I’m autistic, please forgive 😀

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