Cape Fear - Breaking Down The Return Of Great Whites To Massachusetts

Updated: Aug 2, 2019



Summer in Massachusetts guarantees two things - relentless traffic and Great White Sharks.


When the snow melts and Bostonians emerge from their Winter slumber, everyone sets their sight towards Cape Cod's iconic coastline.


But change has been creeping into The Cape's fabric. More is happening under the sea than the usual shifting of sand. The food web is changing, bringing back an old resident of these naturally productive waters.


Men in gray suits - a.k.a. Great White Sharks - have returned.


But why are there suddenly more sharks on The Cape? Is it natural? What does this mean for tourism in Cape Cod's seasonal economy? And how is this affecting fishermen?


To answer these questions, we'll need to tell the interwoven story of two species: Great Whites and Gray Seals.


Sharks And Seals In Cape Cod - A Brief History


Up until the 1600's Gray Seals frequented US waters from Connecticut to Maine. But since then, humans have done some real damage to these animals, hunting Gray Seals to local extinction. Between 1888 and 1962 alone, commercial fishermen killed 135,000 seals because they viewed them as competition for Cod fish (the state of Massachusetts paid a bounty of $5.00 per seal).


It wasn't until hunting and killing seals was outlawed in Massachusetts in the 1960's (and federally via the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972) that Gray Seals began to come back.


Today, the population of Gray Seals has rebounded to as many as 50,000 - a number still far less than what they used to be.





And what about the sharks? Great Whites are voracious seal-hunters, but are also threatened by human activities.


In Massachusetts waters, Great Whites were a target for recreational anglers until they became designated as a protected species in 2005. Since then, Great White numbers have slowly seen a rise in sightings, but their status is still unknown. The IUCN currently designates Great White Sharks as 'Vulnerable' to extinction.


It's not necessarily that Great White Sharks are experiencing a population boom, but that they are following their prey to Cape Cod.


A Scare In 2018


The conversation around Cape Cod's Great White Shark resurgence reached a height in 2018 when a young boogie-boarder was attacked and killed nearshore by a Great White - the first time this has happened on The Cape in 82 years.


Following the unfortunate and extremely rare death of Arthur Medici, local officials, residents, and tourists expressed real concerns about the growing presence of White Sharks in these waters.


What Should Be Done?


Following Medici's death, voices arose for a cull - but not of sharks - of the recovering seal populations.


Fishermen have always been a vocal minority in the push to control seal populations, and local authorities wanted to protect Cape Cod's seasonal economy from weary visitors who have heard news of massive sharks patrolling the shallows.


Why A Seal Cull Is Wrong And Won't Happen


First, It's important to dispel the idea that a seal cull would prevent shark attacks.


The call to cull seals mostly comes from local fishers and coastal residents who believe (falsely) that seals decimate fish populations and pollute the coast with their waste.


Let's get the facts straight, seals do eat commercially important fish - including Cod and Haddock - but they also eat 36 other different species of fish, and studies have found that their primary diet is sandlance, hake species and flatfish. Overfishing and the effects of climate change are having a drastically more important impact on Northeast fisheries than seals.


Secondly, the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal a the federal level to hunt or kill Gray Seals - so a cull is entirely unrealistic.


Respect For The Sea Is The Key


The inconvenient truth is that seals belong on Cape Cod's coasts. It's their home and always has been. Humans have viewed this as an inconvenience in the past, and as a result altered the structure of an entire ecosystem.


What we see today are signs of recovery. Proof that life at sea is resilient, and comes back when humans aren't actively killing it.


The key moving forward is a combination of public education, awareness, and preparedness to handle the worst-case-scenario.


When humans enter the ocean, we're entering a realm that isn't our own. The odds are slim that you'll ever encounter a White Shark face to face, even in Cape Cod - but it doesn't hurt to take the following steps to minimize your risks:

1. Be aware sharks hunt for seals in shallow water.  

2. Stay close to shore where rescuers can reach you.

3. Swim, paddle, kayak and surf in groups – don’t isolate yourself.

4. Avoid areas where seals are present.

5. Avoid areas where schools of fish are visible.

6. Avoid murky or low visibility water.

7. Limit splashing.

8. Adhere to all signage and flag warnings at beaches.


By respecting the recovery of Cape Cod's coastal ecosystems, humans can learn to co-exist with these iconic marine species, and continue to enjoy The Cape's beautiful beaches.



References


https://www.atlanticwhiteshark.org/atlantic-white-sharks

https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/cape-cods-gray-seal-and-white-shark-problem-anything-black-and-white

https://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/013292/gray-seals-and-white-sharks-meet-anew

https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/14/532952894/gray-seals-once-hunted-are-thriving-in-new-england

https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/3855/10133872

https://capecodchronicle.com/en/5344/chatham/3708/Scientists-Address-Myths-Misinformation-About-Seals-Sharks-seals.htm

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