Wigren: Research Helping To Change Public Attitudes About Sharks

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Sharks

Research by the state division of marine fisheries, funded by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, is working to determine the population of white sharks off Cape Cod, as well as increase understanding of the apex predator. ATLANTIC WHITE SHARK CONSERVANCY PHOTO

CHATHAM – Q: What do you think of immediately when you’re asked to imagine a shark?

A: “Jaws.”

This question was one of several posed by Cynthia Wigren, founder and president of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC), during a talk last Wednesday evening at the community center. The title of Wigren’s talk, which she delivered to about 75 people, was “Awareness Inspires Conservation: White Sharks in the North Atlantic.” The event was sponsored by the Friends of Monomoy.

Wigren took her first cage diving trip in South Africa in 2010. “I honestly thought it was going to be the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. The size, power, speed and grace of sharks impressed her. In fact, her dive was “life changing” and caused her to leave the corporate world. She was “mesmerized” by sharks so much that she founded the non-profit AWSC.

It so happened that happened shortly after great white sharks were first tagged off Cape Cod in 2009. After her dive, Wigren contacted Greg Skomal, the senior scientist at the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, and offered her help. Through the AWSC people can make tax-deductible donations toward shark research.

The film “Jaws” was released 41 years ago and it still defines our thinking about sharks, Wigren said.

Yet “the more you get to know them, the more you realize they’re not so bad,” she added. “They’re just a species with a P.R. problem.”

Here are a few facts that emerged in Wigren’s talk:

Worldwide last year, 98 people were bitten by sharks while 1,600 people were bitten by other people in New York City. “You’re more likely to be bitten by a person in New York than by a shark,” Wigren said.

Worldwide, 50 people were killed by shark attacks between 2005 and 2014—an average of six per year. “Shark attacks are incredibly rare, incredibly rare,” she said. “You’re more likely to win the lottery.”

Yet humans kill between 73 and 100 million sharks each year for their fins. The demand is up in China for shark fin soup, a delicacy. Finning—the practice of cutting shark fins off and discarding the rest of the body, while the animal is still alive—is a “wasteful and barbaric practice,” she said. Sharks have more to fear from humans than we do from them.

There are over 500 species of sharks, with the largest, the whale shark, hitting 40 feet in length. The smallest, the dwarf lantern shark, is the size of a pencil. Most sharks are harmless.

The presence of white sharks right off the coast of Cape Cod is an “incredible opportunity for the scientists,” Wigren said. White sharks here are nothing new—they date back to the 1800s. Until recently, white shark research was conducted on dead specimens. Now that the white sharks are returning predictably to Cape Cod each spring, scientists have access to live sharks.

And what is drawing the sharks? The large gray seal population off the coast. Gray seals were almost extinct until the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act forbade people from hunting them.

A couple of weeks ago a white shark was spotted in the Nauset Inlet by Coast Guard Beach as it chased a seal. Wigren showed a video taken last year of a great white breaching off Monomoy in six feet of water. When a seal shot out of the water, the shark came after it. (The seal got away.)

“White sharks are coming into areas where people are spending time as well,” Wigren noted. “Public safety becomes a concern.” A regional shark working group, including town officials, met in the winter to discuss improving safety on the beaches, partly by raising beachgoers’ awareness of sharks. A flag system is in place. Also, a Sharktivity app for iPhones can be downloaded from atlanticwhiteshark.org. The app allows users to report sightings.

Meanwhile, the efforts to tag sharks using various technologies continue. An Autonomous Underwater Vehicle is an underwater robot that follows a shark. One video showed a shark at a depth of 300 feet trying to bite the robot. “They definitely have personalities, as we learn on the water,” Wigren said. “They’re all a bit different around the boat.”

Due to the tags, scientists have learned that many sharks follow a “snowbird migration,” swimming south to Florida in the winter and returning to the Cape in May. They are here in peak numbers in August and September with only a straggler or two remaining by December. In 2014, 68 individual white sharks were identified. By 2015, the number had climbed to 209.

The public is beginning to view sharks as something other than the horror of “Jaws,” Wigren said. As evidence, she pointed to beachgoers banding together to save sharks when they stranded on the beach. Last summer, a shark named Jamison which stranded in Chatham was saved. Because Jamison was tagged, we know that in January he was off South Carolina and on June 29 of this year he was off Monomoy.

“It’s a great survival story,” Wigren said.

For more information visit atlanticwhiteshark.org, which just merged with the Chatham Shark Center at 235 Orleans Road, North Chatham. Love sharks? The center is looking for volunteers.