BARNSTABLE — With TV camera crews from Boston circling like great white sharks, the board of county commissioners heard a proposal last week to use sound to move seals and sharks away from the Cape's off-shore swimming areas.
With the exception of coastal homes falling into the sea from eroding banks, off-Cape media attention is limited to the summer months and mostly concentrates on traffic jams and the weather. Injuries, and in one case a death, caused by sharks have increased visits by the satellite trucks.
Space was tight in the commissioners' conference room in Barnstable Village May 29 as Willy Planinshek, a general contractor, and Kevin McCarthy, who worked in business development and marketing for oceanographic manufacturing companies, introduced their Marine Acoustic Deterrent Systems, aka M.A.D.S. Their business entity in Yarmouth Port, Deep Blue LLC, was incorporated in Massachusetts on May 24.
“We have two problems on the Cape,” Planinshek said, “overpopulation of seals and overpopulation of great whites.” The latter, he said, is caused by the former. Therefore, “if we can direct the seal traffic pattern, smoothly, gently, with no harm to the animal whatsoever by directed sound waves that are tailored to their inner ear chamber to cause irritation and interruption—it will be a little bit uncomfortable, possibly a little bit more than uncomfortable—that seal will put on its blinker and take a turn into deeper, friendlier water. Should they do that, the great whites will follow. That is their dinner table.”
The seal deterrent constitutes one level of an anchored double platform buoy that would be placed off Cape beaches. The second, according to a “white paper,” would feature “an orca vocalization chamber to alert the great whites that their only and intensely feared predator is nearby. It has been witnessed and recorded, when there have been orcas present there has been up to a two-month vacancy of great white sightings.”
Planinshek said the white paper has been submitted for review to Woods Hole Group, which as a $49,000 contract with several Outer Cape towns to look at ways to protect beaches from great white sharks.
Anchored off posted swimming areas, the buoys' instruments would create a deterrent dome of sound to redirect seals and sharks. “It will be imperative,” the paper states, “for all communities to adapt this technology, the breaking of the domed travel pattern and the deeper water habitat could reasonably concentrate overwhelming numbers of seals and sharks in non-protected swimming areas.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Ron Beaty about the effects on neighboring towns that might not deploy the acoustic devices, Planinshek said, “We are (not) creating an invisible fence to keep your dog on your property. We're not keeping your dog on your property. We're keeping all the neighborhood dogs off your property. If all the towns are not linked... one particular town does expose itself to overpopulation.”
Commissioner Mary Pat Flynn asked about the effects of sound waves on boaters and swimmers and was told “none whatsoever” by McCarthy. Commissioners Chairman Ron Bergrstrom noted that “there are people on the Cape believing their health is affected by cell towers. You send out sound waves, you get a reaction. Your burden would be to show it's specifically targeted to seals.”
Asked by Bergstrom about the permitting process, McCarthy said, “Obviously, nothing will happen this season. The grey seals are here year-round. We're not limited to testing the system in summer. We would hope if we get this on the fast track we can have a working prototype tested and in the water by next season.”
The permitting process, McCarthy said, “is not a show-stopper.”
“You can work through this under the current provisions of the (federal) Marine Mammal Protection Act?” Beaty asked. “In our opinion, it's not an obstruction at this point,” Planinshek said.
Objections and cautions came from two members of environmental organizations.
“I am very concerned about human safety and absolutely for that reason believe that anything adopted has to have a reasonable chance of improving the odds for people,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States. “Unfortunately, this does not. This proposal is reinventing the wheel. This is acoustic harassment, used in multiple countries and our own... It exceeds the pain threshold of animals, (who have) learned to put their heads out of the water and so they don't hear it... It's not just heard by seals but by other marine mammals. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the concern is going to be on non-target organisms, particularly whales and porpoises that are capable of hearing in this range.”
Brian Sharp, director of marine mammal rescue and research for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said he wanted to dispel “the seal cafe fallacy. I can tell you from the number of large whales I necropsied... almost every whale and dolphin we bring in to necropsy (has shark bites). These sharks are not here just for seals. Yes, sharks eat seals, dolphins, whales. Sharks eat fish.”
“They attack people, too,” Beaty said.
Sharp said acoustic devices have been used in rivers around salmon farms but “not much work has been done in open waters.” He agreed with Young that animals become habituated to the sound and swim with their heads out of the water. Meanwhile, “there's very little data on what deterrents do to fish populations.”
A demand for action came from two activists from Wellfleet, John Kartsounis and Drew Taylor. It's personal for Kartsounis, who said his daughter helped with the rescue effort at Newcomb Hollow Beach last year when Arthur Medici had his fatal encounter with a shark. “My kids were training to be junior lifeguards at Marconi Beach,” he said. “Part of their training 10 years ago included a swim out to a buoy that's a quarter-mile out in the ocean. We have to ask why the National Seashore is not recommending that now. Now they have (practice) in the ponds.”
Both men were critical of organizations such as IFAW and the Humane Society, with Kartsounis saying “the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have an agenda. They have a financial interest or maybe a political interest.” That said, he added that “there are solutions. We all have to work together. (The NGOs) can't say they need another 10 years before they make a decision.”
The commissioners encouraged Planinshek and McCarthy to continue developing their proposal and to make connections with other Cape groups working on the situation. “It's an increasing problem that cries out for a solution,” Bergstrom said. “Anyone that can come to us or the other organizations has our support.”