WELLFLEET — In the three years since a shark attack at Newcomb Hollow Beach — the first fatal attack on the Atlantic coast since 1936 — the debate about how best to mitigate the risk of future incidents has not advanced much. One thing that has shifted, it seems, is beachgoers’ risk tolerance. What we need, experts say, is to become “shark smart.”
In the year following the attack, ominous signs warning of the danger of great white sharks replaced signs explaining the danger of rip currents at the beaches — despite the fact that drowning deaths are much more common than shark-related deaths. In the past 100 years, there have been two fatal shark attacks in Massachusetts, while there were over 100 drowning deaths in 2019 alone.
But the signs fit the mood, as the community mourned Arthur Medici, 26, who was killed at Newcomb Hollow. Beachgoers were at first hesitant to return to the ocean. Now, however, it appears many have forgotten their fears. Visitors at Wellfleet’s backshore beaches regularly take pictures of friends posing cheerfully with the shark signs in the background.
For some, at least, Covid-19 has put shark attacks in perspective. Kai Potter, who writes the surfing column for the Independent, said that is true for him. When a simple thing like going to the grocery store became dangerous, he said, his tolerance for risk on the water shifted. “Surfing,” he explained, “makes me feel alive.”
The shark attack did not decrease tourism at National Seashore beaches. For the past three years, the number of visitors has held steady at about four million a year.
Still, at least some are asking that the National Park Service and local towns do more to provide protection from sharks.
Olaf Valli, who owns Sick Day surf shop in Wellfleet, says he constantly thinks of the risks of shark attacks. He believes that addressing the threat is an “ethical responsibility for the towns on the Outer Cape.” He says that the town, which manages three of Wellfleet’s backshore beaches, should prioritize preventive measures as opposed to reactive ones like the bleed kits located at many beaches now.
Questions about potential liability for town governments have been raised from time to time. In 2019, according to the Cape Cod Times, then-Wellfleet Town Administrator Dan Hoort said he had been advised by town counsel that, if Wellfleet invested in shark deterrent technologies, a false sense of security might be created, which could then leave the town liable if a shark attack did happen.
The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act allows people to sue the government for the negligence of its employees, according to Michael Fee, a partner at Pierce & Mandell who lives in Truro. Fee disagrees with Hoort’s assessment. To acknowledge a problem but not institute serious preventive measures could be construed as negligence, he believes. “You are more likely to get sued if you knew about a dangerous condition and did nothing,” Fee said.
Suzanne Grout Thomas, Wellfleet’s beach director, explains that, in addition to signs that warn beachgoers about sharks, seven beaches along the coast, including Newcomb Hollow and Lecount Hollow on Wellfleet’s ocean side, have buoys “that are set up to detect tagged sharks when they pass within 200 feet.” Thomas said the town has also increased shark-related training for lifeguards and provided them with higher stands and binoculars to look for movements in the water.
As for shark technologies, there are many devices on the market that claim to deter sharks. But their effectiveness is not a sure thing. Greg Skomal, a fisheries biologist at the Mass. Div. of Marine Fisheries, notes that great whites are different from other sharks in that they “attack with great speed and stealth.” The thinking is, shark repellents that work with smaller sharks such as bull sharks may not work on great whites.
For example, SharkBanz is a popular device that its maker says works by emitting a strong electromagnetic field. The sensation for sharks, according to the company’s website, is “analogous to having a bright light suddenly shined in your eyes in a dark room. You would not be hurt, but you would want to turn away.” The device is worn around the ankle and sold in many Cape shops, but it is not proven to work against great white sharks. Consumers who do not do careful research in advance would not know that until after buying the device, opening it, and reading the great white shark warning label inside.
Research funded by the Australian government and published on the open access journal PLOS One in 2016 showed electronic deterrent technology to be promising. In tests conducted on Seal Island in the Western Cape of South Africa, where great white sharks are abundant, electric fields emitted by devices made for personal use caused sharks to be slower to interact with bait.
The Australian company Ocean Guardian is working on commercializing a large-scale adaptation of the electronic deterrent idea. Their vision is to create an electronic shark barrier that could be used to protect entire beaches — but a prototype has not been tried on our shores.
Some people question the logic of investing heavily in large-scale shark deterrents. Given that there is insufficient empirical data about how they might work in Cape Cod waters, Brian Carlstrom, the superintendent of the National Seashore, maintains that the “primary focus should be educating the public” and giving them the tools they need to be shark smart.
Essentially, that means staying out of the shark’s hunting grounds, Skomal said. “Waist deep is as deep as I would go to cool off in the waters of the Outer Cape, just because anything deeper is accessible by a white shark trying to hunt a seal,” he told B.U. Today in a 2019 interview.
The National Seashore’s “Shark Smart” page advises swimmers to stay away from seals and schools of fish; to swim, paddle, and surf in groups; and to stay close to shore. It also suggests that beachgoers use the Sharktivity app it developed with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and the Mass. Div. of Marine Fisheries to track and report great white shark sightings.
Learning about sharks is important, Carlstrom said, even if it lowers the appeal of swimming at the beach. Nevertheless, as shark prevention technologies continue to evolve, Carlstrom said he remains open to further investigation.
One thing is certain: the white shark population is increasing, as it has been for at least the past decade. Scientists consider that fact a conservation success story. Gray seals have rebounded here since passage of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. They are a preferred food for white sharks. So, Carlstrom explained, “sharks are returning to their historic range.”
During a shark tagging expedition in 2019, Skomal found sharks not only in the ocean but also roaming Cape Cod Bay. He believes that the population will not plateau until an ecological balance is reached. Asked when he thought that might be, Skomal said he’s working on an answer in a research report due out at the end of the year.
Benjamin Siegel of Sharon is a sophomore at Milton Academy and a summer resident of Wellfleet.
Editor’s Note: Young Writers and Editors
Benjamin Siegel and Cole Scott Tunstall took part in the Independent’s Summer Journalism Workshop for middle and high school students. Over a few weeks’ time, they worked to research and write their stories, with Summer Fellows Cam Blair and Ben Glickman as their editors. By chance, both pursued the question of co-existence between humans and the wild animals in our midst. Cole Scott Tunstall’s story on coywolves is linked here. —Ed Miller
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that attorney Michael Fee lives part-time in Truro; he lives in Truro full-time.