Sharks On the Shoreline: What Lies Beneath the Water?

In recent years there has been an increase in shark sightings in New England. While beachgoers aren't too happy to be sharing the waters with great whites, the rise in shark sightings is actually something of a success story, and it's up to us to find a way to co-exist.

What if we told you the increase in shark sightings in New England was actually a good thing?

An Increasing Population

Science shows significant changes in the shark population along Cape Cod.

Dr. Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries is one of the leading experts in shark research. 

”We’re definitely seeing an increasing trend and we think that’s pretty much highly correlated with the robust presence of seals in the area.”

Back in the 1970s, the seal population was nearly extinct. It wasn’t until the passage of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act that the seal population began to rebound. More seals means more sharks, and a higher likelihood for an attack.

“We firmly believe that when a white shark strikes a person it’s a mistake. There is really shallow areas to feed on the seals and the seals now with the seals stay very tight to the beach the sharks challenge themselves to get in tight to the beach and of course you superimpose human activity over that and it creates this potential and we saw that happen last year,” Skomal said.

Shark Attacks

The recent and more frequent shark sightings have beach goers on edge in Cape Cod, especially after last year’s attacks.

New Yorker William Lytton was attacked on Long Nook Beach in Truro, Massachusetts on August 15, 2018. He survived, despite suffering deep puncture wounds to his legs and torso. But just one month later a few miles away, Arthur Medici became the victim of the first fatal shark attack off Cape Cod in 83 years. 

Since the attacks last summer, Truro Town Manager Rae Palmer says she and other town officials are working with the Cape Cod National Seashore to prevent future attacks and limit the loss of life.

During last year’s attacks, patrons had to run beyond the beaches to parking attendants to call for help due to weak cell service. This year officials are installing call boxes for faster response times and hemorrhage kits to stop the bleed in the event of an attack.

Town officials also obtained a stretcher with buggy wheels to transport potential victims faster, and there will be EMTs to patrol the beaches as an extra safeguard. 

Test Your Shark Knowledge

Research and Prevention

Researchers are trying to identify specific areas, hotspots, times of day, even months when the sharks are feeding and hunting the seals. New tagging technology is giving them more information than ever before.
New tags have built in accelerometers - the same technology that’s in your smart phone that tracks your activity.
“That’s going to allow us to look at their fine scale movements in 3D. And from that we are going to be able to identify when they are feeding on seals as well as conditions that they might be more likely to be going after seals when they’re more active,” explains Megan Winton, a research scientist at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy works alongside the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries researching sharks behaviors and trying to forecast the future.
Determining things like how much sharks are eating, if it relates to time of day or tide cycles helps town managers and the National Seashore hone in on their safety messaging and actions to help prevent shark attacks.

Sharks in Connecticut

Even though seals are not an uncommon sight along the Connecticut shoreline, great white sharks have never had a presence in Long Island Sound. Experts say there are only four species of shark found there - the sand tiger shark, the brown shark and two types of dogfish.
These sharks feed on small schooling fish and invertebrates- not seals. So when it comes to the sound, you’re safe to swim.

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Climate Change and Our Coastal Ecosystem

As we talk about sharks, it's important to think about everything else that lives beneath the water, and what climate change and rapidly warming water means for our coastal ecosystem.

The North Atlantic shelf, which includes the Connecticut shoreline and extends all the way up to the coastal waters of Canada is warming faster 99 percent faster than our global oceans. And while the increasing shark population isn’t directly impacted by the warming water, scientists are concerned for what the future holds for all kinds of marine life.

One example is the seals. As waters warm, these fur-coated animals with a heavy layer of blubber may migrate north into colder waters. Sharks may then follow their food source.

A migration has already begun for humpbacks whales, which used to be visible in large quantities from the Cape Cod shoreline. 

But the humpbacks aren't just moving - they're also dying. Experts aren't sure why, but they suspect it's a signal from the climate.

The situation is much more dire with right whales. Experts estimate there are only roughly 400 right whales left in existence.

Experts estimate there are only roughly 400 right whales left in existence.

The species is experiencing a high mortality rate in conjunction with a low calving rate. For perspective - seven calves were born earlier this spring, and so far this summer, four right whales have been found dead. While the reason for the low calving rate remains a mystery, the high mortality is being traced back to humans. Whales are becoming entangled in fishing gear and run over by ships.

“One suspects as is usually the case that there are dysfunctions in the ecosystem. Potentially changes and food may be due to climate change, potentially females carrying diseases there is a thought that there may be some genetic dysfunction because of such a small population but we can’t say for sure why there are so few calves," explained Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies.

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