A summer of social distancing among people didn’t mean that sharks kept their distance from New England shores.
This summer marked Maine’s first recorded fatal shark attack, just two years after a Revere man was killed during an attack off Wellfleet beach, and a New York man was injured in a separate attack that same summer while at Longnook Beach in Truro.
Now, a consortium has formed among entities studying white sharks along the northeastern seaboard. Dubbed the New England White Shark Consortium, the group was formed “with growing sightings of white sharks from Rhode Island to Canada,” according to a press release from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.
The new consortium includes the conservancy, plus the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, N.H. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, UMass Amherst, UMass Dartmouth – School of Marine Science and Technology, Atlantic Shark Institute, New England Aquarium, Arizona State University, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
According to Megan Winton, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s chief research scientist, the consortium aims to study the sharks, and provide information that can help with safety at beaches.
“The concept of the consortium was to assemble scientists from individual institutions that have partnered on various white shark projects in New England and Canada, under the umbrella of one collaborative organization,” she said in an email to Boston.com. “The consortium provides opportunity for researchers working throughout the region to leverage everyone’s collective expertise. Ultimately, we aim to improve understanding of white shark life history, movements, habitat use and behavior.”
Much attention has been focused on sharks over the last few years, with more sharks tagged in 2019 than in any other year, and with the fatal shark attacks off Wellfleet and Maine. But sharks have always swum along the New England coast, even though there’s been a lower prevalence of them, according to Winton.
“From catch records, we know white sharks historically occurred in the waters off New England and Atlantic Canada but, at least for most of our lifetimes, they’ve been relatively infrequent visitors,” Winton said. “That’s because 1) the white shark population in the region declined pretty dramatically (by some estimates as much as 80%) in the latter half of the previous century as a result of increases in commercial and recreational fishing pressure and 2) the abundance of seals, a preferred prey item for white sharks, was very low.”
But there are indications that the population may be recovering, according to Winton. There’s been increases in both sharks being accidentally caught, as well as sightings, in the western North Atlantic, she said.
“Though the trends for the broader region are still uncertain, white shark abundance along the coast of Cape Cod has definitely increased over the past decade,” she said. “The population has shifted its distribution to prey upon the local population of gray seals, which have recolonized the region following the prohibition of bounty hunting by the state of Massachusetts in the 1960s and the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act by the federal government in 1972.”
The increase in sightings is also reflective of the increase in shark-related efforts. In an interview with Boston.com in August 2019, Greg Skomal, the program manager and senior scientist for the Massachusetts Shark Research Program, noted that having additional people looking for sharks makes a difference.
“There’s a greater level of effort out there looking for sharks and that has resulted in more information and more communication and more closures of swimming waters,” he told Boston.com in an interview at the time. “And that’s what this perceived increase in sightings and beach closures can be attributed to.”
With the new consortium in place, experts are looking to not only add to what is currently known about sharks, but also help to educate people and increase safety, according to the announcement on the effort.
Along with that, in 2019 the conservancy started to collaborate with the state Division of Marine Fisheries focused on public safety, according to the conservancy in a press release. The group has also worked with the state, the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at New England Aquarium, the University of New England and Arizona State University to tag sharks found off Cape Cod.
“The tags measure the 3D movements of white sharks and record video footage that will be used to characterize the hunting tactics of the species in the region and better understand circumstances associated with predatory behavior,” the conservancy said.
The work, according to Winton, has helped with creating what she called a “shark forecast.”
“The results of all of these projects are being used to identify areas and conditions during which white sharks are most likely to overlap with recreational water users and will provide science-based information to improve public safety practices,” she said in a conservancy release. “For Cape Cod, data collected are also being used to develop and evaluate a dynamic outreach product that will use near real-time satellite-derived measures of environmental conditions to produce ‘shark forecast’ maps that can be used to alert beachgoers when conditions indicate a high probability of white shark presence.”
Being able to know when sharks may be more apt to be along New England coastlines is helpful not just for people, but also sharks.
“Human-wildlife conflict may pose the greatest threat to the long-term conservation of white sharks,” Cynthia Wigren, CEO of the conservancy, said in the release. “These robust research studies will benefit both the public and the white shark species. By working collaboratively across Cape Cod and throughout the region, we can draw from the individual expertise while tapping into lessons learned from other white shark hotspots around the world.”
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