Top Stories Of The Last Two Decades

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local History

Dr. Greg Skomal tags a great white shark. With fewer research trips so far this summer, reports of shark sightings are down by more than half. ATLANTIC WHITE SHARK CONSERVANCY/MASS DMF PHOTO



As we start a new decade, we look back this week at the first 20 years of the 21st century. Below is our list of the top 20 stories, culled from suggestions by staff and readers. It is in no way comprehensive and certainly not conclusive, but it highlights, we believe, the most significant issues and events of those years.


1. Sharks

Sharks have been present, and documented, along Cape shores since Colonial times. There were intermittent sightings in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it wasn't until 2004 that the extent of the presence of great white sharks began to become clear. That summer there were several reports of sharks attacking seals. "Frankly, it doesn't surprise me," shark biologist Dr. Greg Skomal told The Chronicle after one report of an attack on a seal. "I'm curious as to whether this is going to be a recurring event.”

He didn't have to wait long. That October a 14-foot great white shark became stuck in the shallow water of a salt pond near Naushon Island, south of Woods Hole. Skomal, with the help of four Chatham fishermen, helped the shark escape into deeper water, but not before he was able to place a tag on the predator. Although the tag fell off soon afterwards, it was the first time a great white shark had been tagged in North Atlantic waters, but certainly not the last.

It soon became clear that there were more than a few white sharks off the Cape's eastern shore, drawn, scientists said, by the huge seal population. A 1997 ban on both commercial and recreation harvesting of white sharks also contributed to the increase in population. In 2009 Skomal began a program of tagging sharks, assisted, as of 2013, by the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. More than 200 sharks have been tagged since, and dozens of other individual sharks identified through videos taken by Skomal and his team during excursions in the summer and fall. Last year Skomal began collecting data to study the fine movements of sharks.

Since the Cape was established as one of only a few shark “hot spots” in the world, the region has become identified with the predator through media, merchandising and internet memes. Local officials worried that a fatal attack would impact tourism; their fears were realized in 2018, when a boogie boarder was fatally bitten by a shark off Wellfleet. It was the third confirmed shark bite in Cape waters.

Publicity about sharks continues unabated, with media reports and attention focused on sightings and beach closures, but the concerns about a negative economic impact have generally not been borne out. Twenty years ago, the Cape was probably still most identified with the Kennedys, but today, it's fair to say that the Cape, especially the Outer Cape, is more closely tied to sharks.


2. Seals

Seals could have been included with sharks, but their sheer numbers, and their polarizing impact, earn them a separate listing. The population of gray seals, especially, has ramped up considerably over the past two decades. In the 1990s, seals were around but not omnipresent the way they became by 2010s. Shielded by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, seals initially staked out Monomoy and Noman's Island off Nantucket, but eventually spread throughout most of the Cape and Islands waters.

And the numbers were staggering. Some estimates put the number of gray seals in Cape waters at more than 50,000, part of a North Atlantic population that may number upwards of 600,000. Along with attracting great white sharks, seals are blamed for the decline in fish and coastal pollution. There have been serious discussions about ways to cull the population, but any such activity would require significant regulatory review, possibly even an act of Congress.

And there's no doubt that seals have contributed to the economy through seal watches and tourists flocking to beaches and spots like the Chatham Fish Pier to get a glimpse of the once elusive creatures. No doubt the debate on managing the population will continue into the next decade.


3. Nutrient Loading And Wastewater

In the early 2000s local communities were just coming to grips with how nutrient loading, mostly excess nitrogen, was degrading coastal waters, not only imperiling the environment but also threatening the region's golden goose, tourism. Chatham was one of the first towns to complete a comprehensive wastewater management plan, calling for installation of sewers in major watersheds and, ultimately, most of the town, at a cost over 20 or more years of $200 million. Harwich and Orleans followed with their own wastewater management plans, all of which are in various phases of implementation. As a whole, the Cape will spend billions of dollars to mitigate nutrient loading problems. Last year, the Cape and Islands Water Protection Fund was established, with a new excise tax on room rentals targeting wastewater infrastructure costs.


4. Monomoy Regional School District Formation

After various discussions over half a century, Chatham and Harwich finally merged their school systems into the Monomoy Regional School District in 2010. The successful drive was prompted by Harwich's need for a new high school, but with declining school-age populations in both towns, it made sense to combine resources. It wasn't an easy process; while the vote passed overwhelmingly in Harwich, the merger was approved in Chatham by a slim 61-vote margin. The new high school opened in Harwich in 2014. The district continues to struggle with its population, especially at the lower grades (see Housing Crisis).


5. Chatham Harbor Inlets, Erosion

Most of the camps in Chatham's section of Nauset/North Beach were lost following the 2007 break in the beach opposite Minister's Point, now known as the North Inlet, virtually wiping out a way of life that had been around for nearly a century. The break was one of several that were to occur, contributing to erosion of the outer beach and the mainland and making navigation, especially between the harbor and the Atlantic, hazardous, at best. The shoaling led to numerous boating accidents, and probably contributed to the drowning death of man near the North Inlet last fall. Dredging occurred occasionally, and was recently being fought by a homeowner who believes it contributed to erosion of his property. By the end of the century's second decade, most of South Beach had washed away, following the April Fool's break in 2017, leading to major flooding in the Little Beach neighborhood. Efforts are underway to find a way to protect the shoreline from what officials see as a microcosm of sea level rise anticipated to worsen due to climate change.

Significant storms also whittle away at Nauset Beach, ultimately dooming the iconic Liam's restaurant and requiring the town to reconfigure the parking lot a number of times.


6. Housing Crisis

The region wasn't exactly affordable at the start of the 21st century, but housing costs skyrocketed over the last 20 years, barely taking time off for the Great Recession in 2008. By the end of 2019, the income required to afford to purchase even a modest home here was beyond most available jobs. This created a crisis expressed in the drop in population of young people and families. While the overall populations of Chatham, Harwich and Orleans remained relatively steady, the composition skewed older, with Orleans becoming the town with the oldest population in the state. The number of seasonal homes has increased, with many reasonably priced homes being scooped up either as summer rentals or for redevelopment. There is a significant lack of year-round rentals, with little turnover and high rents; a 2017 Cape Cod Commission study cited a 4,441-unit affordable rental housing gap.

Efforts to combat these conditions ramped up toward the end of the 2010s, both regionally and locally. Chatham launched the Chatham 365 Task Force, which recommended ways to retain a more diverse population.


7. Tornado

The July 23 tornado was not the only significant weather event of the past two decades, but it was no doubt the rarest and most unusual. The 110-mile-per-hour wind storm knocked out power to thousands and destroyed some 3,000 trees on town property in Harwich alone. The loss changed the appearance of the landscape, especially in the Hollow at Brooks Park, which was practically stripped clean of trees. Whether a sign of climate change or not, it certain woke local residents up to the potential for damaging weather at any time of the year.


8. Development, Redevelopment, Loss Of Historic Resources

If the big story at the end of the 20th century was the rate of development on Cape Cod, its sequel in the past two decades has been redevelopment. Especially in Chatham, Harwich and Orleans, as larger tracts of developable land became scarce, existing buildings, both residential and commercial, became prime targets for tearing down and rebuilding, often to the maximum allowed. Many smaller, more affordable homes were lost to new, large seasonal dwellings, and historical buildings in prime locations became targets for redevelopment. Historical protections were implemented, including demolition delay bylaws, and attempts to establish historic districts were launched but rarely reached fruition. Chatham officials first began discussing a historic district for South Chatham 20 years ago, for instance, and that proposal is only now coming to fruition. The development drive, especially the loss of modest homes and conversions to seasonal use, has driven up the value of real estate and contributed to the inability of many working people to afford to live here.


9. Lights, Camera, Action!

Several high profile movies were filmed in the area between 2000 and 2019, drawing interest and attention to local sports (“Summer Catch,” 2001, filmed mostly in North Carolina but set in Chatham and focusing on the Chatham A's baseball team) and history (“The Golden Boys,” 2007, about three old sea captains living in Chatham). Most high profile of all was “The Finest Hours,” the $80 million, Disney-produced, 2016 film based on the 1952 rescue of men from the tanker Pendleton by a Chatham Coast Guard crew. It brought an infusion of economic activity to the town as well as creating a buzz as its stars shopped downtown. In a rather notorious postscript, “Golden Boys” and “The Light Keeper” director Daniel Adams later served jail time after being convicted on tax fraud charges.


10. Movies Return To Main Street

After the 2011 closure of the Regal Cinemas Multiplex in East Harwich—which later became the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School—and the relocation of CVS to a new building next to the Chatham Village Market, a group of Chatham residents launched an effort to restore the former CVS building to its original use as a movie theater. After raising more than $2.5 million from hundreds of donors, ranging from a few dollars to grants for thousands, the nonprofit Chatham Orpheum Theater purchased the 1916 building and renovated into a two-screen state-of-the-art movie theater, opening in 2013.


On The Web

Our current website only goes back about five years, but a listing of the top online stories provides a glimpse into the topics that have resonated most with our readers.

1. Tornado Touch-down Confirmed In Harwich; Cleanup Underway, July 23, 2019

2. Family Has Close Encounter With 14-foot Shark In Pleasant Bay, July 26, 2016

3. Iconic Chatham Squire To Be Sold, April 30, 2019

4. Cleanup Begins After Powerful Storm, March 1, 2019

5. Body Found Inside Coast Guard Boat, July 31, 2017

6. Newburyport Man Who Drowned In Chatham Harbor Was Founder Of High Tech Company, Sept. 12, 2018

7. Warning: Sharks Are STILL Here, Sept. 5, 2018

8. Earth Murmurs, April 19, 2017

9. Shark Bites Seal In Half Off Andrew Harding's Lane, Aug. 10, 2017

10. Accidents Highlight Bar Danger, Oct. 12, 2016