EASTHAM – The results of a 100-page shark mitigation study were released to the public last week and among all the compiled data there was one clear message: There is no solution available that can guarantee the safety of beachgoers determined to venture into the water during peak shark season. The report, and its primary message, was the subject of a public forum held Oct. 16 at Nauset Regional High School, during which members of the Woods Hole Group, an international environmental services and products agency located in Bourne, and local officials presented key points from the study and received feedback from audience members.
The Woods Hole Group was contracted to undertake the study, which cost $50,000, by the towns of Chatham, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown, along with the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, in response to what has been considered a sharp uptick in shark activity in recent years, resulting in Cape Cod becoming designated a “hot spot” along with Australia, California, and other areas with heavy shark populations.
While the report detailed the reasons for the study, as well as the various possible mitigation methods available, it emphasized several times that “the most important finding...from this preliminary assessment is that there is no single alternative or suite of alternatives that can 100 percent guarantee the safety of individuals who choose to enter the water.”
Adam Finkle, a coastal scientist with the WHG, said the study included 27 mitigation alternatives that were either technology-based, barrier-based, or biological-based and ranged from acoustic, real-time tagging to the utilization of real and artificial kelp “fences,” smart drum lines and cull nets, and rigid and flexible exclusion barriers.
According to a public survey included with the study, the majority of beachgoers, most of whom are residents, preferred a technology-based solution to the problem of sharks encroaching on swimming areas at local beaches.
Unfortunately, little to no cellular service along Outer Cape beaches, including Nauset, poses problems regarding real-time acoustic alert tags, which, under ideal circumstances, send immediate alerts to officials when a tagged shark passes by an acoustic buoy. A trial run of the system was employed this summer at Newcomb Hollow, which was specifically chosen because it offered adequate cell service. While successful, the system offered data pertaining only to tagged sharks (researchers have tagged more than 180 sharks but have identified more than 300 individual animals). The study also noted that none of the tech-based options physically separate sharks from humans in the water.
The mitigation options that had the potential to keep sharks and humans separated also came with their fair share of concerns. For example, although flexible exclusion nets have seen some measure of success in other countries, they come with a high risk of entangling other marine life, which could be detrimental to the Cape's sea turtle population.
Biological alternatives such as seal contraception, culling, electric shock, and smart drum lines are also not optimal as state and federal protections on seals and sharks prohibit culling, and smart drum lines, which ideally allow an animal to be trapped, tagged, and released, often fail, resulting in the death of the captured creature. There is also a high likelihood that the drum lines will catch marine mammals other than sharks.
David Pike of Wellfleet suggested combining the tech-based alternatives of flying drones and balloons, but Todd Morris, president of WHG, said he didn't see that as a potential solution.
“It's something that the towns could look at,” he said. “My caveat would be that, given the research, you're likely to miss most of the sharks. You'll see some of them, but you always have to remember to keep the public educated that just because there's a balloon up there doesn't mean you're safe.”
Morris explained that one possible option was real-time alerts and detection, but noted that getting the information to every beachgoer posed challenges.
“Detection is a lot of what we focused on. If you can detect a shark, it's possible to make a real-time alert,” Morris said. “Getting that information to shore and to the lifeguards isn't that hard, [but] getting that information to all the people on the shore is the hard part. There are a lot of techniques out there and none of them are all that effective.”
Bob McLaughlin, who has been a summer resident of Orleans for two decades, offered the services of the company he works for, Acoustic Technology, Inc., which provides loudspeakers for mass alerts. McLaughlin offered to set up a demonstration in the parking lot at Nauset Beach, explaining that if used in conjunction with other detection systems, a mass alert broadcast could help get people out of the water much faster after a shark sighting.
“You can judge for yourself if it will help your cause,” he said.
Massachusetts Environmental Police Captain Kevin Clayton, deputy chief of enforcement for the South Coastal Bureau, questioned whether an indigenous harvest of seals would make sense, but was told that while the Woods Hole Group looked into Native American and First Nations harvests in Canada and northern Alaska, those harvests didn't provide enough subsistence to the respective communities and weren't a viable solution. There was no information regarding a local indigenous harvest of seals.
Wellfleet surfer Ed “Shred” Hathorne urged panelists to keep up the plane spotting typically done by Wayne Davis as part of state Division of Marine Fisheries biologist Greg Skomal's white shark study team, while Jim Russo of Eastham suggested adding shark smart education to the curriculum at local schools.
Mark Griffin, also of Wellfleet, expressed his concern that area lifeguards, including his daughter, aren't properly protected during water rescues, having only a long board to rely upon versus something safer.
“I don't want her lifeguarding if that's the only tool,” he said. “It's dangerous.”
Griffin suggested equipping lifeguards on the Outer Cape, particularly at beaches with a high number of shark sightings, with jet skis outfitted with rescue sleds, which would offer lifeguards better protection should a rescue situation arise.
Brian Carlstrom, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, said that right now the most important action people can take is education. He and other Outer Cape officials, including Orleans Town Administrator John Kelly, Suzanne Grout Thomas, director of community services in Wellfleet, Eastham Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe, and Leslie Reynolds, chief ranger of the Cape Cod National Seashore, acknowledged a number of actions those towns have taken.
In Orleans, encouraging people to change their behavior during peak shark season is ongoing via public education, beach signs, Stop the Bleed classes, and the use of roving EMTs. This summer, 9-1-1 call boxes and cellphone repeaters were installed at Nauset Beach in order to improve communication.
Visitors to Lighthouse Beach in Chatham had the opportunity this summer to listen to a 15-minute “Shark Smart” talk on ways to stay safe in local waters, and in Wellfleet, along with Stop the Bleed training and the installation of emergency call boxes, lifeguard hours and days were extended.
Everyone agreed that the dialogue regarding white shark mitigation is just beginning.
“Please don't look at this report as a closing,” said Reynolds. “It's an opening. This entire group in front of you is really optimistic about where we're going now.”
Researchers and officials plan to gather to discuss the report next month.