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OPINION

Facts, but no easy answers, around shark bites in New England

So what can we do — especially as people flock to the beach to cool off?

A white shark dorsal fin.
A white shark dorsal fin.John Chisholm/Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries

A terrible tragedy took place in the waters off Maine this past Monday when a woman was fatally injured by a bite from a white shark. As shark scientists, we follow these incidents closely and try to learn whatever we can, but we fully realize that data and analyses are of little comfort to all those affected.

We also know that part of our job as scientists is to communicate the facts to the public as clearly as possible: This was the first-ever shark-related fatality in Maine’s history. There were only two fatalities from sharks in the world in 2019. Globally, shark bites on humans were lower than average in 2018 and 2019, and this trend appears to be continuing in 2020, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Given the number of people who enter the water every year, shark bites are rare (64 bites worldwide in 2019), and the vast majority of people who are bitten survive.

Those are the numbers, but other facts around shark attacks are much more difficult to assess: Why did this specific incident happen? What brought the shark so close to shore? What attracted it to the pair of swimmers? Why did it bite? The reality is that such incidents are so rare that the single biggest factor is probably chance.

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So what can we do in response to these incidents — especially as people flock to the beach to cool off? First, researchers are trying to learn as much as we can about the movement, behavior, and biology of these elusive animals, and our data can inform public safety. The New England Aquarium, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy are conducting studies on multiple shark species in New England, including white sharks. We are tagging sharks to see where they go and how they feed and mate. We are also studying whether they may be shifting their movements due to warming waters or changing seal populations.

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The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy have also been working to raise people’s awareness of the presence of white sharks, using beach flags and the conservancy’s Sharktivity smartphone app for reporting sightings. These groups have worked with the Cape Cod National Seashore and others to improve beach safety by increasing the number of first aid stations and providing “Stop the Bleed” training sessions so more people are equipped to respond to a shark bite incident.

There are also a number of personal safety guidelines: Avoid swimming near seals or baitfish, stay close to shore, and always swim with others. Of course, many people ignore this advice and aren’t bitten by a shark. Alternatively, even following these guidelines to the letter does not guarantee anyone’s safety.

Entering the ocean brings with it some inherent dangers. Drowning accidents associated with hazardous conditions, like riptides, claim far more lives than sharks. Humans also pose a much greater threat to sharks, killing an estimated 100 million sharks every year, primarily due to the shark fin trade.

The presence of sharks in New England waters is part of a rare conservation success story, and healthy shark populations are one sign of a healthy marine ecosystem. Some vilify sharks as killers, while others defend them with bizarre claims that they are harmless. The reality is that they are neither of these things. Sharks are wild animals, completely indifferent to us, trying to survive long enough to reproduce as their predecessors have done for hundreds of millions of years. Although these facts are no consolation to those impacted by shark bites, we must keep them in mind as we plan our next steps. While we can never eliminate the risk of tragedies like the one that took place in Maine this past week, we hope that our efforts will help ensure that such incidents remain exceedingly rare.

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Nick Whitney is a senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. Greg Skomal is a senior scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.