What to do about Cape Cod’s sharks?

Swimming hazard requires some sort of response

IT WOULD BE AN ENVIRONMENTAL success story were it not for all the swimmers and surfers.

The rejuvenated population of great white sharks patrolling the waters off Cape Cod has raised the alarm, and for good reason. The sharks pose a potentially fatal threat to people in the water, and that offshore menace creates risks for the tourism market that sustains the local economy.

The sharks have returned to the area because the gray seals that they feast upon have bounced back, according to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which credits state and federal protections of the seals dating back to the 1960s for that dynamic.

But even though the heightened number of prey may be to blame, culling the seals isn’t the easy solution it might appear to be.

That’s according to Andrea Bogomolnis, a seal expert who spoke to Neil Swidey for an article in The Boston Globe Magazine examining the shark problem from a historical, cultural, and scientific vantage. After talking to Bogomolnis, Swidey ponders whether reducing the seal population could backfire and make the beaches even more dangerous. If the sharks kept returning to the beaches but there were no longer enough seals to sate their appetites, there’s no telling what they might do. Swidey also attributes the greater number of sharks today to protections for the predators themselves that were enacted in the 1990s.

Another complication for those who think killing the seals would solve the problem is that the seals currently basking on the sand on Cape Cod are just one part of a much larger population of roughly 300,000 who travel between the United States and Canada, according to Sharon Young, the marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States.

“So the 10,000 that are on a specific beach today are not the same 10,000 that might be there tomorrow,” Young told the Associated Press.

And yet a Nantucket-based group called the Seal Action Committee is mounting an effort to repeal some of the federal seal protections. Barnstable County Commission Chairman Ronald Bergstrom said Congressman Bill Keating, who represents Cape Cod, isn’t a big supporter of that approach. That would make it a tough sell in Congress.

For all the problems – practical and political – facing the kill-the-seals approach, at least it is a proactive response to the problem. Cape Cod officials have addressed the growing threat, but with mostly reactive measures such as installing trauma kits and 911 call boxes at the beach, and enhancing the training and hours of lifeguards. Those could help save a life after someone is attacked, but they would have limited utility to prevent bites from happening in the first place.

Last September, 26-year-old Arthur Medici, of Revere, was killed by a shark off Wellfleet, the first such death since 1936.

On Wednesday, the Barnstable County Board of Regional Commissioners heard pitches for more measures, including an offer by Acoustic Technology Inc. to install a speaker system to apprise beachgoers of any shark sightings at no cost for three months.

Heather Doyle, of Wellfleet, wants to use the unproven technology of sonar buoys to detect sharks before they have a chance to attack, and she told the AP a few months ago that even though those might not be completely effective, it’s better than doing nothing.

Shark researcher Greg Skomal told Globe Magazine that by learning more about sharks’ behavior, officials could design systems to better protect people who want to enjoy the water. Swidey suggested that perhaps pushing the seals farther offshore would improve things.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Last Saturday, three Cape beaches were closed because of shark sightings and on Tuesday, the Head of the Meadow Beach was closed once again because a shark was spotted. Citing the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s Sharktivity app, NBC Boston reported that there have already been more than 100 great white sightings off Cape Cod this summer.

This weekend should be a scorcher in Boston, and beautiful weather on Cape Cod, according to current forecasts. That means it’s likely to be a popular weekend for Cape beaches, and another one without the needed fix for the problem of sharks just a little way offshore.