CHATHAM – With public safety their top priority, selectmen voted Monday to investigate ways to set up a net or other barrier around the swimming area at Oyster Pond Beach to keep out both seals and sharks.
The step is a short-term measure the town can implement next summer in response to citizen concerns about the increasing number of seals and sharks in local waters, board members said. Actually reducing shark and seal populations or developing more comprehensive methods to protect swimmers is a far more complex and problematic endeavor, they said.
It was clear during discussions Monday, however, that nothing is off the table, including culling the gray seal population.
“I'm not sure this goes far enough,” Chairman of Selectmen Dean Nicastro said, voicing concern about the impact to property values and the region's economy following the September shark attack death of a boogie boarder in Wellfleet, two non-fatal shark attacks this summer and the proliferation of seals, whose presence often necessitates the closing of popular town beaches.
With gray seal populations estimated to be about 23,000 year-round and upwards of 50,000 during the summer, “It's clear to me that we've got a seal tsunami out there,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. “There's seals everywhere, deep in Ryder's Cove. I pick up my mooring and look down at a seal. The fact that they're in Oyster Pond does not surprise me because they're everywhere in Ryder's Cove and they're everywhere in Pleasant Bay.” And with the seals come great white sharks, as many as 300 of which may be off the Cape's shores for much of the year.
Selectmen also voted to establish a safety protocol for town staff handling dead seals, and to develop a public education campaign to discourage feeding seals, including setting penalties such as fines and permit revocation.
Monday's discussion came at the request of resident Elaine Gibbs, who earlier raised concerns about the presence of seals in Oyster Pond, near the beach where the town's recreation department holds swimming lessons for children. Seals are feeding within 30 feet of the shore, she said, adding that experts say sharks need only four or five feet of water to remain below the surface, undetected, raising the specter that sharks could follow seals into Oyster Pond.
“I'm sick to my stomach my grandchildren were playing 15 feet from me in waist-deep water at children's beach this summer,” she said. “I won't let that happen again. I think it would be grossly irresponsible.”
She noted the increasing number of shark sightings since 2004 and the growing seal population. “The seals are the reason sharks are coming closer” to shore to feed, she said. While scientists have said people need to change their behavior given the circumstances, she said the only option shouldn't be to stay out of the water; statements by State Senator Julian Cyr and others that culling is not an option are premature, she said.
Officials shouldn't wait until a child is killed by a feeding seal or a shark to take action, Gibbs said. “Or we can recognize that ignoring the data is no longer an option. It's only going to get worse.”
Along with a net or other barrier to protect the Oyster Pond swimming beach, technology, including balloons and drones, should be explored to monitor the entrance to Oyster River and Lighthouse Beach as well as the seal population, she said. The harbormaster department budget should be increased for more patrols and emergency stations at high-risk beaches during the summer, she added. And if the town wants visitors to take the threat seriously, sharks should no longer be used to attract tourists.
“There's a very fine line between educating the public and portraying sharks and seals as Disney characters with names,” Gibbs said. “It sends mixed messages, causes confusion and complacency and it clouds objectivity when objectivity is needed.”
Given the number of seals, she suggested the species be removed from the endangered species list to give the state more management flexibility. But Dr. Andrea Bogomolni, chair of the Northwest Atlantic Seal Consortium and a visiting investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said de-listing the species would not have an impact because the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits any harassment of seals.
Seals are a sentinel species that can provide a warning about adverse changes to the marine environment. Archaeological records show their presence here dating back 4,000 years, and both gray and harbor seals, the most common pinniped species in Cape waters, were nearly wiped out when bounties were placed on them in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she said. The numbers have been growing ever since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972. Great white sharks have been rebounding since becoming a federally-protected species in 1997. Interactions between the two have been well documented in the past.
What's going on today is “not unnatural,” Bogomolni said. “It's something we've seen in our waters for a very long time.”
Nicastro said the board received several letters in support of culling seals, including from John M. Dowd, a former attorney for President Donald Trump who has a home near Oyster Pond. Nicastro asked Bogomolni if culling 10,000 to 20,000 seals would have an impact on the overall population. Since Chatham's seals are part of the overall Northwest Atlantic population, estimated at 600,000, localized culling would have no effect, she said.
“Science does not support that culls actually work, unless you remove an entire species, which has its own unintended consequences,” she said. Asked by Nicastro about using contraception to control the seal population, she said so far that has only proved effective on captive animals because it requires multiple treatments.
Selectmen convened the discussion so that any proposal with a financial implication could be incorporated into the fiscal 2020 budget. Board members clearly wanted to take some sort of action before next summer.
“We have another season coming,” said Selectman Peter Cocolis. “If people fear coming here because of sharks, then we have to address that.”
There are larger issues at play, Dykens said. Changing federal law can't happen quickly, and there are many experts available in the area who should be consulted. “We've got a lot of learning to do,” he said. Placing a net, cage or other barrier at Oyster Pond to protect children is the least that could be done short-term.
“I really want to do something proactive for next summer, for the next swimming season,” he said. Selectman Cory Metters said while no options are off the table, it's not a simple problem to solve. “This issue didn't happen overnight, and any changes to it will not happen overnight,” he said.
The issue is broader than public safety, said Nicastro. He was critical of the “over-promotion of sharks,
almost a glorification of sharks” during the past several years, including exploitation by local merchants. Given the recent attacks, shark branding could have a negative impact on tourism, the fishing industry and property values, he said.
“I think there is a potential risk that affects the valuation of our hard-earned and paid for homes and other real estate in town,” he said. “I don't want this town to be labeled as 'shark town USA.' I fear that if we don't do something it could be.” What the solution might be he did not know, and while he didn't advocate seal culling, “it's not off the table either.”
Chatham isn't the only community in the world to deal with this problem, said John King, a board member of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and captain of the vessel used by state shark biologist Dr. Greg Skomal to tag and identify sharks for the past five years. Town staff have participated in a regional shark working group that has been in contact with experts in California and Australia. Before the town decides on an approach it should tap these resources to determine the best practices used elsewhere, he said.
Selectman Shareen Davis, whose family operates fish weirs in Nantucket Sound, said they have been dealing with seals since the 1980s. While a net may protect against sharks, she questioned its effectiveness with seals. Seals are very intelligent and adaptable, she said.
“We see them in fish weirs. They swim in, they climb over, they climb out,” she said.
She was also concerned about the increasing number of dead seals that town staff must dispose of, after getting permission from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the agency designated to handle marine mammal strandings on the Cape. Pathogens from seals can infect humans, Bogomolni said, and anyone handling dead animals should wear gloves and even masks. A safety protocol for town staff should be developed, Davis said.
Feeding seals, which Bogomolni called “provisioning,” is also a concern, because it habituates the animals and can make them aggressive. Two people were bitten by seals at Ryder's Cove this summer. It's a learned behavior that has to be unlearned by not providing food sources, she said. The town has put signs up at town landings urging people not to feed seals and warning that it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but that's not enough, selectmen said. They asked for recommendations from staff on a public education campaign and local fines for feeding seals, as well as the potential for town landings permits to be revoked if charter boats engage in seal feeding.
Ultimately, outside of education, there may not be much local communities can do to protect swimmers. Resident Norma Avellar noted that “you can't teach common sense,” referring to a photograph of a swimmer near a seal at the same Wellfleet beach where the boogie boarder Arthur Medici was killed by a shark the previous day. The ocean is the domain of sharks and seals, she said.
“They're not our waters. We don't live in them. The sharks do. The seals do. We invaded their territory, they did not invade ours,” she said.
Many factors, including rising ocean temperatures and the presence of food sources, control the Cape's rich and diverse marine ecology, said Bogomolni. As long as there is a food source, seals are likely here to stay, she said, and should not be protected because they are “cute and fuzzy,” but because they help maintain a health ecosystem.