CHATHAM – When visitors stop by Lighthouse Beach, they often ask anyone who looks like a local about what, for the past several years, has been the chief topic of interest here: great white sharks.
Making sure folks get accurate information about the region's shark population is the impetus behind a new program being proposed by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC). Under the “Shark Smart” program, AWSC interns will give free presentations at Lighthouse Beach three days a week in July and August touching on shark biology, research and public safety as well as answer questions.
“We see this as a great opportunity to share public safety messaging [with the public] and educate them about what's going on,” said Marianne Long, the Conservancy's education director.
Lighthouse Beach was chosen because that's where town officials and people in the business community say that's where people go to try to see sharks.
“It's just constant,” said park and recreation commission member David Eldredge, who manages the Chatham Beach and Tennis Club next to the overlook parking lot. While the chance of seeing a shark from the overlook or the beach are extremely slim, supplementing existing (and new) signs and brochures with the presentation would likely help satisfy visitors' curiosity, Long said.
Last summer AWSC interns participated in the Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman's Alliance pier host program, in which retired fishermen answer questions about the town's commercial fishing fleet at the Chatham Municipal Fish Pier. The Shark Smart program is based on the pier host program, “but we wanted to take it a step further,” Long said. Three AWSC interns, college students studying marine science or education, will undergo extensive training about the ongoing shark research sponsored by the organization, as well as shark biology, public safety as well as other aspects of the area's marine ecosystem.
“The sharks are one topic, but it often leads to seals, and when you see a fishing boat go by, the fisheries,” Long said. “We're going to try to give them a well-rounded background so they can discuss all those different things with the public.” The program will also be “a great opportunity to really practice the skill of science communications,” she said.
The thirst for information about great white sharks is considerable, boosted by national and international publicity as the shark population has grown over the past decade. Long said last year there were more than 16,000 visits to the AWSC's Chatham Shark Center on Orleans Road in North Chatham between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. “Those are all people coming to town because they're engaged in what's going on with sharks,” she said.
With two shark attacks on people last year—one of them fatal—Park and Recreation Commission member Ira Seldin questioned at what point sharks will start frightening away tourists. Long said she could not address the tourism impact, but said it's a fact that people are coming here to see sharks.
The interns won't advise people whether or not to swim in the ocean. “We provide them with the safety messaging and then we say this is your decision on where you feel comfortable to use the water recreationally,” she said.
Commission Chair Meredith Fry urged Long to make sure the interns communicate with the Lighthouse Beach patrol “so everyone's on the same page,” especially regarding swimming.
While the park commission endorsed the program, approval is still needed by the board of selectmen. Long said no date has yet been set to present the Shark Smart program to the board.
The AWSC's proposal calls for the program to begin the first week in July. Interns would hold the free sessions at 9 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, presenting a 15- to 20-minute program on the beach, at a location to be determined after consulting with Park Director Dan Tobin. Signage and a location to leave program material such as brochures will also be determined later. Tobin said the town has received 10,000 copies of a new shark education and safety brochure and is updating warning signs posted at Lighthouse Beach.
Education is a major component of shark safety measures being implemented this summer in the six towns along the Cape's eastern shore. The state is providing $383,000 for call boxes, satellite phones for lifeguards and safety equipment, and last week Representative Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, announced that the House's FY20 budget included another $200,000, including $50,000 for the Cape Cod Regional Shark Information Network to develop a unified message, enhanced public education and disseminate accurate and timely information about sharks in the region's waters. Another $75,000 will fund a study of white shark presence and behavior in nearshore areas, which is aimed at gaining a better understanding of the factors that draw sharks nearer to shore, information that can be important in making public safety decisions. Continuation of the division of marine fisheries' shark research tagging program is also slated to receive $75,000 under the proposed budget. That program is responsible for tagging more than 120 white sharks during Dr. Greg Skomal's five-year shark population study, funded largely by the AWSC. This season Skomal plans to concentrate shark research efforts in Cape Cod Bay.
The AWSC, Cape Cod National Seashore and six Outer Cape towns are also funding a study by the Woods Hole Group investigating technologies and methods for identifying sharks in swimming areas. The study, Long said, “will provide a framework for decisions makers going forward to evaluate what the different options are, what might work or not, and what should be explored further.” The study is expected to be completed in September.
The Chatham Shark Center won't open this year until June 15, Long added. The facility is undergoing renovating that include adding a multipurpose room for activities and presentations.
If the “Shark Smart” program is successful, it could be expanded to other beaches the following summer, Long said.