Chatham Joins Regional Shark ‘Mitigation’ Study

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Sharks

Researchers from Florida-based tech firm Altametry ran a trial of their balloon-mounted shark surveillance system at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet on Aug. 1, 2017. A little more than a year later, a 26-year old man was the victim of a fatal shark attack at the same beach. COURTESY ALTAMETRY

CHATHAM Saying they favor a regional approach based on sound science, selectmen Monday signed on to a study of ways to control the risks posed to swimmers and beachgoers by great white sharks.

To be conducted by the Woods Hole Group, the study is expected to yield a report by the early summer. While some of the recommendations may take years to implement, others might be put in place in time for the 2019 beach season.

The study, requested by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy on behalf of the regional white shark working group, is proposed to have eight sponsors: the Lower Cape towns of Chatham and Orleans through Provincetown, along with the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Conservancy. Each sponsor is asked to contribute $6,244 to fund the $49,950 study.

According to the Woods Hole Group’s proposal, the researchers met with Wellfleet Town Administrator Dan Hoort and state shark biologist Greg Skomal to consider four potential strategies for tracking or controlling the white sharks that visit local waters each summer and fall. While acoustic and satellite tags are proven technologies, they are of limited value because they cannot provide reliable real-time data about shark locations. And while high-tech tracking systems that use drones or balloons might provide better coverage, the technology is not mature or reliable enough for public safety purposes.

“To rely solely on a technological solution as a viable alternative for keeping swimmers and surfers safe would be irresponsible,” Woods Hole Group Coastal Scientist Adam Finkle wrote in the study proposal.

A third shark mitigation strategy would involve barriers or nets to keep people separated from sharks and seals, and this may be one of the only ways to limit conflicts with people, they acknowledged.

The fourth approach would be “biological controls” that presumably include shark culling. That strategy has been used in South Africa and Australia with limited success.

“Deployment of biological controls would likely result in unforeseen trophic cascades and would require significant legislative changes and/or exemptions to be adopted locally,” the researchers wrote.

From their first meeting, the study organizers concluded that there are no “silver bullet solutions” to reducing shark interactions with people, but there are some actions that can be taken immediately to improve safety for the upcoming beach season. Some of those steps are already underway, like conducting public “stop the bleed” training sessions and researching ways to improve communication from remote beach areas using mobile cell towers or call boxes. When it comes to shark barriers or biological controls, more research is needed, they concluded.

In its proposal, the Woods Hole Group outlines a plan to hold meetings with the regional shark working group, the gathering of beach managers, researchers and pubic safety officials that has been working on shark safety issues for several years. They would then research and scientifically evaluate the various strategies, analyzing alternatives and issuing a report. The research team will include coastal scientists, engineers, oceanographers and a specialist in environmental permitting.

Selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro said the topic is going before the board because it identified shark mitigation efforts as a top priority in its recent goal-setting session.

With regard to biological controls, Nicastro said he hopes the study would not limit itself to culling “but would include contraception as well.”

“I like the idea that this is a regional approach” that would make recommendations based on science, board member Shareen Davis said.

The $6,244 price tag, “I think, is very reasonable,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. The town’s share of the cost of the study will come from the town manager’s fund for consultants, though Goldsmith said regional grants might fund some of the work.

Lower Cape town managers and town administrators have their own working group, and have been working to obtain state funding for potential mitigation efforts, Goldsmith said.

While he acknowledged the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s role in bringing together the study, “I think it’s important for the municipalities to be in the driver’s seat on this,” Nicastro said.

Board member Cory Metters said the town’s contribution to the study is money well spent, “but that’s just going to be a starting point.” The Lower Cape communities will still need to pay to implement the study’s ultimate recommendations, he noted. At this stage, all options for shark mitigation should remain on the table, Metters said.

“The one thing that we also have to keep in mind is permitting,” Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said. Even if some steps can be feasibly put in place before the next beach season, like installing netting around the bathing beach at the Oyster Pond, which selectmen have supported, state and federal regulations may prohibit them, he said.

Organizers hoped to obtain funding commitments from all eight sponsors this week, after which time the study would immediately begin.