In the wake of the death of a 26-year-old Revere man Saturday after he was bitten by a shark in the waters off Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, local officials are planning to meet to brainstorm safety strategies for area beaches.
In a tweet Sunday, Rep. William Keating said he plans to convene a meeting with National Park Service, state and local officials to address the issue. Local officials also said they expect a working group of staff from Outer Cape towns which has been meeting for five years to coordinate public education and safety measures to gather soon in light of Saturday's incident.
Arthur Medici was boogie boarding with another man about 30 years off the beach around noon Saturday when the attack occurred. Bystanders tried to help Medici until a Wellfleet ambulance arrived and transported him to Cape Cod Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
It's the first shark attack death in Massachusetts since 1936, when a 16-year-old boy was killed while swimming in Mattapoisett, according to the Global Shark Attack File. It was the second attack this year – in August a 61-year-old man was bitten on the leg and torso off a Truro beach – and the third since great white sharks arrived in significant numbers off the Cape coast in the early 2000s. The first happened in 2012 when a man who was body surfing off a Truro beach was bitten and injured by a shark.
It's not clear how much can be done to protect swimmers from shark bites beyond the extensive public education put out by local towns in the past several years. Monitoring beaches by drones and balloons has been investigated; the problem is there's a lot of beach to monitor – more than 40 miles from Monomoy to Provincetown – and the topography and remoteness preclude even cell phone signals in some spots. Complicating matters is that shark numbers appear to be near their height late in August and into the early fall, when there are fewer, sometimes no lifeguards on beaches.
“It's a struggle just to keep them on until Labor Day,” said Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom. Seashore beaches were closed 26 times this summer due to the presence of sharks, twice as often as last summer. State Shark Biologist Dr. Greg Skomal and his team of researchers sighted 149 sharks in July, more than double the previous July.
Earlier this month Orleans Natural Resource Manager Nate Sears warned that people seemed to becoming complacent about sharks. Skomal saw an example of that Monday when the research crew traveled by water to the location where the attack occurred Saturday in order to investigate whether anything about the topography or water indicated why the attack happened there. There were surfers in the water not far from where the attack happened, he said.
Completely shutting down beaches along the Outer Cape to swimming isn't going to happen – “That is not a consideration,” said Carlstrom, although the east side of Chatham's remote North Beach Island remains technically closed to swimming – but as Sears warned and Saturday's attack reinforces, there needs to be more done to combat complacency.
“We try to be as aggressive as we can,” said Orleans Fire Chief Anthony Pike. There are strongly worded warning signs at most beach access points along the coast and a warning flag system to inform people when sharks have been spotted. But Pike said he planned to meet with Sears to discuss retooling the signs and the flag system, which he thinks has “become somewhat of a decoration” and may no longer carry the dire warning it was supposed to.
“The educational message really has to be fine tuned,” he said.
Chatham Chairman of Selectmen Dean Nicastro said he will talk with Town Manager Jill Goldsmith about whether the town is doing all it can to protect the public.
“I think we have to make sure our protocols for safety which have been in place are constantly looked at so we can continue provide timely information to the public,” he said.
In large measure, local towns have little control, said Mark Mathison, chairman of the Orleans Park Commission and a selectman.
“You can't go hunting seals, you can't go hunting sharks,” he said. The growing seal population, fostered by the protections of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, has led to more sharks. “The ability to change what is going on in the natural environment is way beyond the control of any individual town.”
Several years ago Orleans added cell phone repeaters along the eastern shore as well as installing repeaters for police and fire radios to ensure that adequate signals; poor cell service was highlighted as a problem on the Truro beach where the August attack took place. Mother Nature has inadvertently helped the situation by eroding the beaches and lowering the topography in some locations, Pike added.
While the town stations EMTs at Nauset Beach during the summer, like the lifeguards they're gone after Labor Day, and Pike said he's planning on requesting funding to keep EMTs on the beach into September. Beach rangers are being retrained in bleeding control measures, and over the winter and spring he hopes to expand training in emergency bleeding control procedures to as many people in the community as possible. Any organization interested in having the department conduct bleeding control training can contact him, he said.
EMTs and paramedics are well trained, Pike said, but equipment shortfalls can be a concern. He's working with the Cape and Islands Emergency Medical Services to stock extra hemostatic dressing, used in the case of extreme injuries, so they can be available to ambulances from towns to the north passing through Orleans on the way to the hospital.
The idea of kiosks containing emergency equipment such as tourniquets being placed at public beaches and beach access points along the coast has been discussed, Pike said, and is “on the front burner.” A tourniquet used on the victim of Saturday's attack was reportedly in the car of an off-duty lifeguard who just happened to be at the beach.
“Nothing is off the table,” as far as ideas to improve public safety, he said.
Chatham Fire Chief Peter Connick said his department is well stocked and also has the resources to access emergencies on the outer beach, working with the town's harbormaster. There's also an ATV available at Lighthouse Beach to reach more remote areas along that stretch.
Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, said she anticipates the group Keating plans to convene will look at ideas like enhanced cell phone communications or emergency radios, but what the final recommendations will look like is uncertain. She said she plans to draft legislation to be filed in January or with a supplemental budget, if that happens sooner, that will request funding for public safety enhancements related to sharks, and she plans on making that a top priority for next year's budget.
“We're an international destination here on Cape Cod, and my view is that the state benefits greatly from the robust tourism industry here, and we need some state funding to support our local communities,” she said. Funding to allow Skomal to continue his studies of the apex predators is also something she plans to explore.
Although his five-year population study, done with support from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and the state division of marine fisheries, is slated to end this fall, Skomal said other research he began in 2009. Five years of data is enough to estimate with some reliability the general population of white sharks off the Cape, but the information gleaned from tagged sharks on movement patterns and other behavior will be just as critical, if not more so, to beach managers, he said.
“We want to know the how, when and where and why of these interactions between sharks and seals, and ultimately humans,” Skomal said. The research aims to answer questions such as how many seals a shark eats and whether that will help limit the seal population, which is becoming a growing concern. “That's the big question,” he said. The research could help shed light on the frequency of attacks on people and where they occur. For instance, on Monday Skomal said he saw a “fairly obvious break” where the victim of Saturday's attack was boogie boarding, with fairly deep water. Visibility in the water Monday was poor, and while he does not know what conditions were like Saturday, poor visibility could lead a shark to bite a person if it thinks it is attacking a seal. Knowing more about when, where and what conditions shark prey on seals could have implications for when beaches are closed.
Skomal urged anyone contemplating going into the water to use caution and take the possibility that sharks might be present seriously.
“If they're going to swim at their own risk, it's at their own risk,” he said. Carlstrom said swimmers should heed the advisories the Seashore has been putting out all summer: don't swim near seals, stay close to shore, swim, paddle and kayak in groups, do not swim at dawn or dusk and limit splashing and flashy jewelry. Don't expect any sort of big solution, he said; with the Cape's wide, open ocean and shifting sands, solutions, like netting, used in other locations won't work here.
There needs to be serious collaboration among the towns, National Seashore, scientists and others to figure out what's best to keep people safe, said Mathison. “That may be saying no swimming during shark season,” he said, though he doubted that would happen. But the seriousness of the situation can't be downplayed, he added.
“We are probably living in the most dangerous body of water in the world in terms of shark attacks,” he said. “I just see this getting much worse rather than getting any better.”
Orleans officials, said Pike, have talked to people in South Africa, Australia and San Diego about how they deal with sharks, and found that there “isn't a playbook.”
“There will be no perfect strategy,” said Pike. “Just preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is going to be pretty much how we go into the future.”