Does Cape Cod Really Have A Great White Shark Problem?

A record number of great white sharks were identified this summer off Cape Cod, and as local communities consider policies designed to keep swimmers safe, opinions are varied on whether the animals represent a problem for the region.

Cape Cod is popular not only with beachgoers, but also with seals, which are both a primary food source for great white sharks and the main reason that so many of the animals find their way to the region each year. Some local residents view the seals and sharks as a major issue, as the Cape Cod Times notes, but officials have been working hard to deal with both animal populations while simultaneously striving to keep beachgoers safe.

Such a task isn’t easy. Some of the East Coast’s most popular beaches are located along the cape, drawing thousands of swimmers every day during summer months. These locations also attract large numbers of seals, much like Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, the site of two separate predation events by great white sharks this summer. With both species operating in close proximity to humans, researchers fear that it may be only a matter of time before one of the sharks makes a mistake.

There hasn’t been an attack on a human in the region since 2012, yet an increasing number of white sharks are showing up each summer, and they are operating in close proximity to shore. Last year, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (a non-profit that studies and documents the cape’s shark population) identified 68 individual white sharks. This year, that number rose to more than 80. A spotter pilot working with the conservancy has observed the sharks swimming in just eight to 10 feet of water, as close as 60 feet from shore, as the Portland Press Herald points out.

Sightings of the sharks led lifeguards to order swimmers out of the water at Nauset Beach for eight of the 12 days leading up to Labor Day this summer. Were the conservancy’s spotter pilot flying overhead all 12 of those days, local officials contend that the beaches may have been cleared every day. As the sharks moved northward in late summer, shifting their feeding activity away from Chatham, they showed up in increasing numbers, sometimes in groups of two or three animals at a time.

In Australia, some localities have decided to employ drones in an effort to better observe sharks along populated shorelines. While such a plan has been suggested for Cape Cod, Natural Resources Manager Nate Sears has created a budget proposal that would see several large lifeguard stations constructed in order to better spot white sharks. He also advocates that Orleans contribute to the conservancy, as it produces valuable data on the location of white sharks and their activities in the region. Largely a privately funded effort, the conservancy hasn’t received substantial contributions from the Cape Cod National Seashore or nearby towns, which rely on the group for information about the sharks.

In addition to education outreach efforts aimed at helping beachgoers protect themselves, one of the possible long-term goals for municipalities along the cape is real-time tracking of the sharks. Tagged great whites could be detected by acoustic receivers moored in shallow water, which would then relay their location to cell phones, alerting beachgoers. The conservancy’s work could be a foundation for such a program, though it isn’t a reality at this time.

For their part, researchers have been presented with an unusual and unique opportunity to observe and study the sharks. As local towns continue to debate the animals, it remains to be seen how emerging policies will aid Cape Cod in managing its great white shark population.

[Image by Elias Levy via Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC BY 2.0]

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