For some conservationists, shark safety is simple: just stay out of the water

Amid recent shark activity along Cape Cod, marine researchers urge beachgoers to practice "vigilance and respect" for shark ecosystems.

Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via AP
A shark advisory is posted at Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, Mass., Aug. 24, 2017. The beach was temporarily closed to swimmers after a shark bit into a paddleboard on Aug. 23.

You can't blame beachgoers on Cape Cod for being jittery after a spate of recent shark sightings, some just a bit too close for comfort but all part of a natural ecosystem that scientists say humans must accept.

Last Wednesday, just off Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, a white shark took a bite out of a paddleboard, throwing its rider into the water. Cleveland Bigelow wasn't injured but compared the impact to that of a motorcycle being hit by a truck.

Two days earlier at Nauset Beach in Orleans – also just feet from shore – a white shark fed on a seal, turning the sea red with blood. Terrified swimmers and surfers fled the water.

On Thursday, shark sightings prompted the closure of Race Point Beach in Provincetown to swimming for about two hours.

Shark experts preach vigilance and respect. After all, it's their habitat, not ours.

"We are the interloper in the ocean," said Marie Levine, executive director of the Princeton, New Jersey-based Shark Research Institute, the nation's oldest shark conservation organization.

"White sharks prey on seals. Seals come ashore," said Ms. Levine. "So if seals are coming ashore on any beach, people should stay out of the water there. It's just common sense."

White sharks, often called great whites, were around millions of years before humans, but only recently have the fearsome creatures been catalogued in large numbers off Cape Cod during the summer. Researchers say they're likely attracted by a seal population that has exploded since the 1972 federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, though additional factors could include changes in ocean currents and the depletion of other food sources by overfishing.

Statistically, risks to people from sharks remain low. The last fatal attack recorded in Massachusetts was in 1936.

No fatal shark attacks were reported in the United States in 2016, or so far in 2017. The most recent unprovoked attack of any kind prior to last week's paddleboard incident occurred Aug. 10 off Hilton Head, South Carolina. A 13-year-old swimmer suffered minor cuts to his foot, possibly from a blacktip shark, according to an incident log kept by the Global Shark Attack File.

"I know people are perceiving this as a banner year and that sharks are increasing and everything, but when we look at the hard numbers that's not the case," said Greg Skomal, a state biologist in Massachusetts who has studied white sharks closely.

July saw far fewer shark sightings than a year ago, possibly due to a cooler spring in the Northeast, he said. Shark activity has since picked up in August.

Mr. Skomal spoke recently while boarding a research vessel in Chatham for a twice weekly shark survey, aided by a spotter plane. Dozens of animals have been tagged with electronic tracking devices so their migratory behavior can be studied.

Skomal's team identified 80 sharks off Cape Cod in 2014, 141 the following year and 146 in 2016. A current year tally won't be available until fall, but he said there was evidence that great whites were spreading out to cover most of the Cape's eastern coast.

Ronald Beaty, a county commissioner, cited "a clear and present danger to human life," while suggesting last week that baited drum lines be used to capture and then kill great whites. The suggestion drew swift and widespread condemnation from scientists and conservationists. The Barnstable County Commission has no plans to discuss such an idea.

In 2015, the state Division of Marine Fisheries issued regulations prohibiting people without special permits from attracting or capturing white sharks through activities such as cage diving, baiting or feeding. Shark advisory signs are posted at some beaches and shark brochures are available at visitor centers.

Skomal noted one possibly reassuring aspect to the blood-in-the-water incident at Nauset Beach.

"We had people who were surfing, we had swimmers, and we had a shark attack a seal among them all," he said. "That's a level of selection that we need to realize. The shark decided the seal was the prey item."

"But sharks do make mistakes," he added.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to For some conservationists, shark safety is simple: just stay out of the water
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2017/0828/For-some-conservationists-shark-safety-is-simple-just-stay-out-of-the-water
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe