Our View: A Regional Shark-Seal Study Task Force


It's understandable. It's a scary, primal situation. A 26-year-old man killed by a shark off a beach in Wellfleet. Step into the water, step into the unknown. It's left a lot of people searching for answers. Unfortunately, a lot of that searching is being done in the dark.

Last week's public meeting in Wellfleet resulted in no real answers or practical solutions beyond what's already been discussed, chiefly ramping up public education. Its purpose was more of a public therapy session to allow people in the region to express their feelings and fears in the wake of a tragedy the likes of which no one has had to deal with before.

It was a necessary step. Now the dispassionate pursuit of practical responses to the tragedy can begin. Officials can gather facts and bring in experts to logically analyze the choices we as communities must confront due to an apparently growing population of great white sharks and an undisputed growing population of seals. Is it practical to ban swimming in certain areas, to set up nets to protect swimmers in some locations, or to invest in expensive technology to create a shark early warning system along dozens of miles of shoreline? Other areas have experience in these areas, and there are hard and fast facts that can be gathered about their efficacy, practicality and expense. Many people have called for culling the seal population on the theory that fewer seals will mean fewer sharks. Is that a logical conclusion? Is the political will there to make that happen? Other regions have obtained exemptions from the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act that allow the taking of seal lions; would that be possible in this case? And who would lead that effort and be prepared to deal with the wrath of national environmental and animal advocacy organizations? Chatham's effort to reverse a federal ruling regarding the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge result in significant pushback from these groups; just imagine the reaction when the proposal involves killing seals. Or would some method of birth control work? Or should the sharks be the species to be culled, which, again, would require a change to the federal and state laws which now protect the species.

No one has answers to these and the many other questions that are swirling around this issue. The Chatham Board of Selectmen has scheduled a discussion on sharks for Nov. 5. The working group of local beach and waterways managers will be meeting any day now to do the same, and town administrators from Outer Cape communities have met once and will do so again this month. What's needed is an overarching organization, or task force, to systematically and logically examine all of the shark and seal issues, with the authority and funding to consult experts. Barnstable County and the Cape Cod National Seashore could provide the organizational structure to sponsor such a task force, but a better approach would be for the Lower Cape towns to do it themselves, forming a regional group to address these issues head on.

We'd recommend they do it and do it quickly. Residents, business owners and visitors will be looking for answers come next summer. Increased public education is necessary and a simple step, but it can't be the last.