‘We need to modify our behavior’: Shark expert speaks on the challenges of preventing more attacks

“The sharks are still here and will be here through October.”

Two signs at the top of the dune at Newcomb Hollow Beach alert visitors that the beach is closed to swimming on Sept. 15, in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Discussions are underway on Cape Cod about how to improve beach safety after a 26-year-old Revere man was fatally attacked by a shark while boogie boarding in the ocean off Wellfleet.

But state shark expert Greg Skomal is cautioning that while there are multiple preventative measures used around the world that can be explored, none of them are 100 percent guaranteed to work.

“There’s no silver bullet,” he said.

Skomal, the senior fisheries scientist for the state Department of Fish and Game who leads the Massachusetts Shark Research program, pointed to the so-called “shark spotters” used in South Africa, where observers are placed on high cliffs to look out for the ocean predators. On Cape Cod, he said, there might be some high bluffs where similar lookouts could be placed, but, in other places, high towers would have to be erected, and, even in South Africa, people still get bitten with spotters in place.

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“Other areas of the world use protective nets to inclose beaches and keep sharks out to some extent,” Skomal said. “That’s a difficult option to do on Cape Cod because of the ever-changing coastline and the very dynamic environment and the fact that there are a lot of other animals that come and go from the shoreline. From ocean sunfish to seals themselves, the nets could be problematic.”

Newer technologies, like underwater sonar systems, drones or aerial balloons, which were tested on the Cape last year, are likewise not completely effective, and they also wouldn’t come cheap, according to the shark expert.

“All these things are feasible to some extent,” he said. “And all of them come with fairly sizable price tags.”

Skomal and his team, working with the UMass School for Marine Science and Technology and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, are in the last year of a five-year study aimed at gathering data to calculate the local population of white sharks and learn more about the predators’ movements and behaviors, primarily off the Outer Cape. The hope is the study will produce an estimate of the population of sharks that visit the region, drawn in by a rebounding population of their preferred prey — seals.

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This year, once again researchers saw a “relatively slow” start to the shark season in June followed by a strong showing in July, he said.

Over the course of seven research trips in July this year, Skomal said he and his colleagues had 149 shark sightings, though they are still working to determine how many of those were of individual animals.

“The 149 might boil down to anywhere from 30 sharks to 100 sharks,” he said. “We don’t know. We will determine, based on the data we collected and the video we collected, the actual number of individuals, which is more important in terms of our research.”

In 2014, over the course of 25 survey trips for the study, Skomal and his team identified 80 individual sharks. In 2015, with an increase to 41 survey trips, they identified 141 sharks, and, in 2016, in over 40 trips, they spotted 147 individual sharks.

While Skomal and his team largely study the waters off the Outer Cape, he said this year he and his colleagues received numerous reports from recreational and charter fishermen in Cape Cod Bay who said they’d had striped bass captured or bitten off hooks by white sharks. He said the development has he and his colleagues considering whether they should survey the bayside of the Cape next year, too.

“Social media was explosive this year in terms of people reporting predation events on seals as well as swimming close to shore, photographed from the beach or other boats,” he said, “so all lines of evidence indicate that 2018 was a strong year for sharks relative to previous years and it’s probably an increasing trend that we’ve been seeing over the last decade.”

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Skomal said it’s clear there’s desire in the community, after the first attack that seriously injured a New York man at a Truro Beach in August and the subsequent death in Wellfleet, to talk about all the options for improving safety and protecting against sharks on the Cape’s beaches.

“It’s something that many of the towns, working with the [National] Park Service and the conservancy have been doing all along,” he said. “Taking those initial first steps to educate the public about the presence of these animals, but also talk about some of these options, even examine some of these options, and the feasibility of using these options. But I think that the conversation’s going to continue, and needs to continue to discuss this.”

The short-term solution, he emphasized, is for beachgoers to modify their behavior, echoing the message that has been put out by Cape officials imploring swimmers to exercise caution this summer and in years past.

“It’s as much about human behavior as it is about shark behavior when it comes to interactions between humans and sharks and sharks and humans,” Skomal said.

A great white shark swims close to the Cape Cod shore in Chatham in 2016. —AP

As part of that, swimmers headed to the Cape should think more carefully about the depth of the water they are swimming in, rather than how close to shore they are, according to the expert.

“If there’s a way for sharks to come in closer, a channel, a water depth of 6 feet or more, maybe even less than that — I can’t put a pinpoint number on it, there are some sharks that might be able to get into 5 feet of water — if you’ve got those locations like that, I think you’ve got to consider the fact that there could be a shark there,” he said. “I think water depth plays a greater role than distance.”

Because of how dramatically the Cape coastline changes, you can encounter areas with broad sandy shallows that also have deep drop-offs nearby, he pointed out.

“The sharks are still here and will be here through October,” Skomal said. “So enjoy the beaches, but know that these sharks are here.”

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