ORLEANS — The return of summer visitors – both people and white sharks – is only a few months away, and local researchers and public safety officials are thinking about a potential surge in shark ecotourism this season. A number of local businesses are already operating boat excursions for shark-watching and cage diving, and others are advertising plans to do so.
Meeting in Orleans last week, members of the regional white shark working group said they wanted to make sure that these businesses are regulated to ensure that they don't threaten public safety or conservation efforts.
The sample regulations were drafted by Michelle Wcisel, program director with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, based on her experience as a researcher and ecotourism worker in South Africa.
“That’s an incredibly huge industry centered around white sharks and access to white sharks,” she told the group. Would-be shark tour providers there are required to complete a very lengthy application with a high application fee, and then commit to rules that make them partners in the white shark conservation effort. The key, Wcisel said, is to consider implementing rules before the burgeoning industry takes off.
“I really feel, having experience in what kind of circus it can be down there, here there’s a huge opportunity to put something in place now,” she said. Doing so is not only better for the sharks, but is less disruptive to people seeking to start new shark ecotourism businesses, Wcisel added.
The draft rules, designed to be a starting point for discussion, propose limiting white shark ecotourism businesses in Massachusetts to three, and identifying zones like swimming areas where cage diving and shark tours cannot operate. The regulations might require that shark charter boats reserve a seat for a qualified observer, like those on commercial fishing boats to ensure compliance with complex fishing rules. They could also mandate a licensing fee that supports conservation efforts, or the monitoring and enforcement of the rules themselves.
There are signs that shark ecotourism is about to increase dramatically on the Cape, with a number of companies advertising expeditions in the 2018 summer season. Wcisel predicted that, once the ongoing white shark population study generates numbers of sharks in the area (see related story), even more businesses will join the effort.
“White shark business is huge business. Massive,” she said. “Multi, multi-milliondollar business in South Africa.”
Some at the meeting suggested regulating shark charters the way whale watch tours are regulated, with businesses required to obtain a government permit and agree to a code of conduct. Unlike whales and seals, white sharks are not covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act; any permitting would need to be done at the state, not the federal, level.
A number of websites are advertising shark tours, and some specify that they will be using spotter aircraft to guide boats to sharks, just as researchers find white sharks during tagging expeditions. Different regulations put in place in 2015 already regulate the practice of chumming, or adding fish gurry to the water, in a bid to attract white sharks. Those rules also originated from the regional white shark working group.
In Chatham, the website for the Chatham Gables Inn is already advertising a package that involves lodging and an expedition with Cape Cod Shark Adventures. Bryce Rohrer, who runs the expeditions, said he believes his industry needs regulation.
“You don’t want to have people with little shark diving experience or shark awareness in multiple aspects running shark dives,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. Charter operators need to know the animals, the risks they can pose and their role in the environment, Rohrer said. “Without permits, the wrong crews could run a shark dive the wrong way and that would be detrimental to both sharks and people.”
Regulators would also need to consider how to award the three permits, should there be more than three qualified applicants. It might be done by a lottery, or it might be conducted like a state contract that requires companies to submit bids.
Rohrer said he has been shark diving professionally for 15 years, and running shark dives around the Cape every summer since 2010 without any safety problems. He said his business is the only full-time shark diving operation on the Cape.
“I would hope we would have first dibs if such a permit became law,” he said.
The proposal to regulate shark ecotourism operations raises a number of key questions, including whether charter fishing boats would fall under the rules if they happen to bring their customers to areas where sharks are known to be present. It would also be difficult to regulate private boaters who follow permitted shark tour boats in the hopes of catching a glimpse on their own. Whale watch operators commonly report being followed by small private boats, experts say.
Other private boaters could simply watch the shark spotting aircraft and wait for them to circle over a suspected shark before traveling to the area to make their own search. Those recreational boaters, “with GoPros on broom handles” probably wouldn’t be captured by the regulations, Orleans Natural Resources Director Nate Sears said.
“Or they’ve launched a drone,” Cape Cod National Seashore Chief Ranger Leslie Reynolds said.
While drafting the regulations could be complex, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has the authority to implement them, state shark biologist Greg Skomal told the group. If the rules originate from the regional working group, “they’ll probably embrace it as something they should do something with.” He said rules could theoretically be put in place in less than a year, or much faster if done on an emergency basis.