Town Prepares New Shark Safety Measures

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Sharks , seals

More signs are likely on the way for Oyster Pond Beach, warning swimmers of seals and sharks. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM With high-tech barriers or deterrent systems apparently off the table for the 2019 summer season, town officials are preparing other measures designed to keep swimmers safe from sharks and seals. Those measures include better communication, patrols, and first aid kiosks on the outer beaches.

A memo from the parks and recreation department indicates that all lifeguard, beach patrol and harbor patrol staff have taken “Stop the Bleed” training in addition to first aid and CPR. Lifeguards will be on station at the town’s five guarded beaches starting June 21 and continuing through Sept. 1, though coverage may be spotty after Aug. 15 as many seasonal staff return to school.

Though first responders can reach the town’s guarded beaches quickly, it can take longer for help to arrive on unguarded east-facing beaches. Two all-terrain vehicles are used as part of the Lighthouse Beach patrol, and a personal watercraft similar to a Jet Ski is used to help with patrols and rescue swimmers in strong currents. On North Beach, patrol vehicles have recently had radio upgrades to allow better communication with harbormaster boats, lifeguards, police and fire departments.

Like Orleans, Chatham will be installing first aid kiosks on North Beach and North Beach Island stocked with key items for use in the event of a shark attack. Funds for the kiosks and new shark safety signs came in part from a $383,000 state grant shared by the six Lower Cape towns between Chatham and Provincetown.

As part of a regional study, the Woods Hole Group is currently evaluating different technologies to detect or deter sharks around bathing beaches, but its recommendations are not expected to be ready until this fall. Last month, town meeting rejected a $100,000 appropriation to investigate or procure a shark barrier or deterrent system for Oyster Pond Beach, where public swimming lessons are held. Selectmen asked staff to find additional shark safety measures that could be implemented in time for this season.

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told selectmen Monday that depending on the logistics of doing so, the town may use a patrol person in a Zodiac-type inflatable boat to watch over Oyster Pond Beach while swimming lessons are taking place. But doing so provides no guarantees, particularly given the turbidity of the water there in the summertime, he said.

“Even having a boat up in there, potentially something could get through that we wouldn’t necessarily see,” Duncanson said.

Town officials will also be reaching out to the pilots of the spotter planes who take part in the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s shark surveys, and ask them to quickly scan the waters of Stage Harbor and Oyster Pond “as part of their routine,” Duncanson said.

Duncanson told the board he was preparing to order 12-by-18 metal signs reading, “Caution, do not approach seals. Seals can bite and transmit disease. Agitated seals may attack. Do not feed seals. Harassing seals is against the law.” The signs were designed to answer concerns about the presence of seals in Oyster Pond and at other bathing beaches, both because of the dangers they pose to swimmers and because they can attract sharks. Duncanson said he planned to order 36 signs.

“Our intent is to have these posted at all the beaches, all the town landings, the fish pier,” he said.

“It doesn’t say anything about [not] swimming with seals,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said. Board members agreed that the signs should specifically warn people against swimming with seals. Board members also wanted the signs to be larger.

Resident Elaine Gibbs questioned the effectiveness of the signs and their wording.

“I don’t think the people at Oyster Pond are going to be harassing the seals,” she said. The risk is that the seals will harm swimmers. “I think it’s kind of backwards.” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens agreed.

“It’s not about harassing seals. It’s about protecting people,” he said.

Duncanson said he would make the requested changes and order the signs shortly. There are also signs that warn specifically about sharks present at high-risk beaches. Those signs, or smaller versions of them, could also be placed at beaches like Oyster Pond, he said. But he warned that signs only provide limited protection.

“You walk down to Lighthouse Beach at the top of the stairs, there’s five or six different signs there,” Duncanson said. “And I would suspect that most people probably walk right by them.”

There are no steps the town can take to provide a 100 percent assurance of safety from sharks and seals, “other than close the beach down,” he said. “There’s got to be some personal responsibility as well.”

Duncanson said he would examine the feasibility of having daily boat patrols in Oyster Pond, and would report his findings to the board.