More Questions Than Answers At Shark Safety Meeting

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Sharks

Surf shop owner Olaf Valli of Wellfleet asks about the effectiveness of shark deterrent devices.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

WELLFLEET With emotion still raw after a fatal shark attack on Newcomb Hollow Beach less than two weeks earlier, there was a spirited discussion in Wellfleet Thursday evening about how to keep beachgoers safe.

There were renewed calls for reducing the number of seals off the outer beach as a means of deterring sharks. Most such measures would be prohibited by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, and repealing or changing that act would be strongly opposed by many, state Division of Marine Fisheries chief David Pierce said.

Gail Sluis of Brewster was among those on the beach when Arthur Medici of Revere was attacked and killed by a shark on Sept. 15.

“It was beyond frightening,” she said. Because lifting federal protections for seals would be difficult “doesn’t mean we don’t try,” she said. “No sharks or seals are worth a young man’s life. They’re just not,” Sluis said.

Wellfleet Town Administrator Dan Hoort said his town and others between Chatham and Provincetown are focused on educating the public about the risks of interacting with white sharks and the seals they feed on, preparing first responders for shark attacks, and speeding up that response. A key problem is that the dunes on the outer beach typically mean that people on the beach have no cell phone service, and thus can’t report emergencies or receive shark alerts. Solving that problem is key, Hoort said.

“In this day and age, there’s got to be a way,” he said.

Citizens at the meeting had a variety of suggestions, from ultrasonic shark-deterrent arm bands to be worn by swimmers and surfers to drone patrols of bathing beaches. Elsewhere in the world, bathing beaches are cordoned off with nets, “but that really only works if you have a cove,” Wellfleet Beach Administrator Suzanne Grout Thomas said. The town will continue working with its neighbors and the Cape Cod National Seashore to find the best safety measures, she said.

“We can never guarantee that you’re going to be 100 percent safe,” Hoort said.

Gail Ferguson, who regularly swims at Newcomb Hollow, said it’s clear that the sharks are off Wellfleet because they have followed the seals from their major haul-out in Chatham.

“I imagine that this pattern has to be disrupted,” she said.

Andrea Bogomolni of the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium said gray seals are present around the Cape, and while some certainly travel north and south along the outer beach, their exact movements are not yet understood. There is ongoing research on seals, just as there is a population study of sharks, now in its fifth and final year. So far, researchers have identified more than 300 individual sharks off the cape, tagging and naming over 140.

Laurie Voke of Wellfleet blamed “misguided, outdated government policies” for precipitating “a critical public safety issue.” The government has taken no steps to reduce shark numbers. “Instead, certain government officials have given pet names to white sharks,” she said. “We all bear collective responsibility for the death of Arthur Medici.”

Wellleet resident Sarah Comstock, who holds a degree in biology, said the ocean is where sharks and seals live.

“We are sort of going into their homes,” she said. Comstock suggested adding more patrols to certain beaches while closing other beaches to people completely, giving seals and sharks their own space. If a tourist leaves the nature trail at Yosemite and is attacked by a bear, people blame the tourist for venturing into the predator’s space. “We’re sort of doing the same thing here,” she said.

Resident Dana Franchitto agreed, saying too many people have an “if it moves, kill it” mentality. A surfer, he has changed his behavior in response to the presence of sharks and admits being frightened of them. “But we’re in their habitat,” he said.

Scott Adams of Homer, Alaska, has visited family in Chatham for the last 30 years.

“I used to surf Nauset and the only thing I was concerned about was the cold water,” he said. Adams urged officials to solve the cell phone reception problem. Even in remote roadways in Alaska, “we have communications almost every mile,” or at least emergency callboxes, he said. Town officials should be “on the phone tomorrow” arranging for equipment to be installed, Adams said.

Surf shop owner Olaf Valli of Wellfleet said his business sells electronic shark deterrent devices for swimmers and surfers and knows that the government of Western Australia offers a subsidy to citizens who purchase them.

Particularly when he surfs late in the season, Valli knows it’s unlikely people would be around to come to his rescue in an emergency. “There’s nobody else out. I want to know how I can protect myself.”

Cynthia Wigren of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy said there have been multiple tests on various devices, and the one endorsed by the government of Western Australia had the most success.

“Still, 40 percent of the time, the sharks did go for the bait” during the test, she said. It is fine to invest in a deterrent device, Wigren said, “But you have to recognize it’s not a guarantee of safety.”

“We don’t want a guarantee,” Valli said. “Sixty percent sounds really good.”

Pierce said it would be useful for surfers to speak with researchers and share their observations of how sharks and seals behave in the surf zone. Finding out the circumstances around encounters that don’t lead to shark attacks might shed light on what behaviors might trigger attacks, he said.

“In the last few years, especially, seals don’t get spooked by us,” Valli said.

Bogomolni said those kinds of first-hand observations could be very useful.

State Rep. Sarah Peake, D–Provincetown, said lawmakers from Plymouth to Provincetown met and agreed to do everything possible to help towns procure funding for safety devices or communication equipment. Regardless of party affiliation, “we speak as one voice,” Peake said.