Surfers Push For Better Shark Safety

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Sharks

Renowned surfer Ian Cairns speaks to the crowd at Wellfleet Elementary School Tuesday night. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

WELLFLEET Surfers, swimmers and other beach users are demanding better safeguards against shark attacks. And they’re acknowledging that it might require some innovative technology, some taxpayer dollars, and a dose of grassroots political activism to get there.

In an event organized by a loose coalition of surfers and other “watermen” who came together after last year’s fatal shark attack, more than 100 people met in the gymnasium of Wellfleet Elementary Tuesday evening to share ideas about shark safety. A key panelist was international surfing legend Ian Cairns, an Australian native who has lived in California for the past 30 years.

“As ocean users, we need a voice and we have rights,” he said. In his youth in Western Australia, Cairns seldom saw great white sharks until the government implemented conservation measures, and then numbers began to increase. “They began, unfortunately, attacking people,” he said. The number of seal rookeries also increased, and since 2000, there have been 15 fatal shark attacks on people in the region. Now, as a resident of California, Cairns said he’s seeing the same situation play out. White shark populations are on the rise in Southern California, where people make around 200 million visits to the beaches each year, half of which are in Los Angeles County.

“You’re going to have interactions that are going to result in deaths,” he said. While there is support for shark research and conservation there, few people were advocating for the rights of beach users. “The whole system is tilted” toward shark conservation, he noted.

In the interest of finding better safeguards for surfers and other beach users, Cairns helped establish a pilot program using an array of sonar-equipped Clever Buoys designed by Australia-based Smart Marine Systems to monitor the waters near Balboa Pier in Newport Beach.

“For the first 30 days, nothing happened,” he said. Then, the weather changed and the water temperature dropped very slightly, “and the detections went nuts,” After a 100-day trial period, the Clever Buoys made 60 shark detections – none of which were spotted by lifeguards or shark surveys.

Craig Anderson, the founder of Smart Marine Systems, was also at the Wellfleet meeting and described his company’s system. The sonar arrays are mounted on the sea floor in an arc between jetties or at harbor entrances, and identify objects that are six feet long or larger and that are self-propelled. The system then uses a pattern recognition algorithm to analyze the target’s swimming pattern, looking for the distinctive movements that separate sharks from seals, dolphins and schools of bait fish.

The moment the system identifies a shark, it sends a radio signal to a cloud-based server that activates an app on phones held by lifeguards and emergency responders, providing real-time information on the size of the shark, its location and even its direction of travel. The data provided by the Clever Buoys not only serves a public safety function, but provides important shark data to researchers, Anderson said.

Cairns said he’s impressed by the results of the Clever Buoy trial near Balboa Pier, and said getting permission for the trial required building support among key citizens and political leaders. When it comes to advocating for the rights of beach users, Cairns urged Lower Cape residents to be vocal and persistent with their elected officials. Anderson agreed.

“You’ve got to move hard and you’ve got to move fast, and it’s the voice of the community that matters,” he said. The fatal shark attacks in Western Australia have left people fearful and have hurt the local economy, he noted. While the pain of last year’s shark attack in Wellfleet is still fresh, in eight months or a year, “people start to forget and the urgency goes away,” Anderson said.

Cynthia Wigren of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a member of the regional white shark working group, said that group is seeking to finalize a project with consultants from the Woods Hole Group, who will analyze a range of shark mitigation alternatives – from aerial drones, nets and sonar buoys to culling programs and strings of baited hooks known as drum lines. The goal is to have all of the proposals, including Clever Buoys, judged by an unbiased, impartial group, Wigren said. The consultants’ recommendations will be shared with Lower Cape towns and the Conservancy, which are sharing the cost of the study. The goal is to have the summary of the analysis ready by June.

“We don’t have the ability to implement any of these technologies,” Wigren said. Ultimately, it will be up to the towns to choose the best systems and to secure funding for them.

Orleans Natural Resources Manager Nate Sears said he and other beach managers have been flooded with proposals from companies and entrepreneurs marketing shark deterrent or detection systems.

“I’m not a shark mitigation expert. I’m not a scientist,” he said. Ultimately, after proper research, he and other beach managers will have to recommend to their boards of selectmen the best, most cost-effective ways to boost shark safety, Sears said.

Chris Zocca, one of the organizers of the Wellfleet forum, said the shark working group needs to hear directly from surfers and others who are out on the water every day. People with practical experience on the water should be able to weigh in on the recommendations to be made by the Woods Hole Group, he said.

Orleans resident Ed “Shred” Hathorne said the base price of a Clever Buoy, $30,000, seems “really cheap,” given its potential benefits.

“Orleans just spent a million bucks on a frickin’ dune” to protect the parking lot at Nauset Beach for an undetermined amount of time, he noted.

State shark researcher and Ph.D. candidate Megan Winton said she and her colleagues are still compiling data from five years of shark expeditions, with the goal of estimating the number of white sharks present in local waters. The research will continue in the years ahead, with a focus on learning more about the fine movements of individual sharks, as recorded by new accelerometer tags. Though she is a scientist, “I am still a human, and I am a member of this community,” Winton said. When it comes to improving shark safety, “we are all trying to be part of the solution,” she said.