If tales from old fishermen are true, Cape Cod has come a long way from when some towns offered $5 a snout for proof of the demise of seals, fish-eaters in fishing communities.
Now a protected species, the gray seal population has exploded on the Cape and Islands during the past four years. And where there are seals, there are seal predators, most famously, the great white shark. Last summer marked one of the busiest seasons for great white sightings in the region, with the first shark attack on a human in Massachusetts since 1936.
Hoping to improve awareness and safety, harbor masters in a dozen communities are banding together to compete for a state grant that could bolster public education and could also expand the monitoring of great white sharks begun in 2009 by the state Division of Marine Fisheries.
The idea stemmed from a first-of-its kind shark summit in October, when officials from Cape Cod communities expressed economic concerns over a decrease in beachgoers and concluded they needed to better understand the great white shark population, as well as to educate the public.
“The value will be increasing each community’s knowledge of these animals and forwarding this knowledge to the general public,” said Dawson L. Farber IV, harbor master in Orleans, the grant’s lead applicant. “We’re seeing so far [sharks are] completely unpredictable as to their feeding behaviors, whether they stay close to shore, far ashore, feeding in shallow water and then achieving incredibly deep dives in the open ocean. They migrate incredibly long distances.”
The bulk of the $262,500 state grant would cover public education, including printing brochures and installing large signs with photos and biological information on sharks. There would also be warnings on the risks of swimming.
The presence of great white sharks along Cape shores cannot be well addressed in a vacuum, said Rex McKinsey, harbor master in Provincetown. Communities that can experience a quadrupling in population during the summer months must work jointly to reach the most people.
“The sharks don’t say, ‘I just got to Truro; I can’t go to Provincetown,’ ” McKinsey said. “We have to educate the tourists not to go swimming with the seals; that’s a bad idea. Surfing at dawn and dusk is a bad idea. Wearing a surfing suit that looks like a seal may be a bad idea. A tourist may not know that.”
The remaining $100,000 would go toward purchasing equipment and technology to augment the great white tagging program started in 2009 by Greg Skomal, a marine biologist and shark specialist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries. Buoys that record the presence of a tagged great white shark were installed in Chatham, Nantucket, and Orleans as part of the original program, Farber said.
“The towns would like to see additional buoys to receive signals from these tagged sharks to target a greater population,” he said. “We want Truro, Provincetown, some of the towns with Cape Cod Bay-facing beaches.”
Last summer, Skomal tagged 17 great whites off the Cape with acoustic tags, uniquely coded for each shark, that send out signals recorded by the buoys. Those data are then collected about twice a month, revealing patterns.
Expanding the existing program would give communities a better idea of where the sharks are and identify their favorite haunts, said Simon Thorrold, a scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who has worked alongside Skomal tagging great white sharks off the Cape.
“The idea is a good one in the sense to get as much real hard information into the hands of the harbor masters as close to real time as possible, so they can make decisions in terms of public safety,” said Thorrold.
The towns have proposed setting aside $2,000 of the grant to purchase a state-of-the-art Bluetooth system that would alert harbor masters the moment a great white shark is in the area.
Administered by the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance, the Community Innovation Challenge grants are slated to be awarded in January. The state has allocated $4 million for regional collaborations.
Communities that would benefit from the proposal include Barnstable, Brewster, Chatham, Dennis, Eastham, Harwich, Nantucket, Orleans, Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, and Yarmouth.