Cape Cod voters, fishers, and tourists all value local shark and seal populations, and an overwhelming majority would accept some inconvenience or risk to support oceans in which marine wildlife can thrive, a study released Monday shows.
But there were differences in the way Cape Cod voters, tourists, and commercial fishers thought about seal and shark populations and the ways in which humans interact with them.
“It’s easy to forget that we live on the edge of a wilderness,” Dr. Andrea Bogomolni, chair of the North Atlantic Seal Research Consortium’s steering committee, said at a press conference in Woods Hole Monday. The organization is a partner on the study published through the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Past the unicorn floaties and the lobster rolls on Route 6, you can step into a world of endless expanses of sand dunes, and on a crisp, clear day, look onto the ocean for miles.”
Seals, which nearly went extinct in Cape Cod because of decades of bounty hunting that ended in the 1960s, have seen significant population growth in recent decades because of conservation efforts and emigration from Canada. White sharks, too, seem to be more common, though research into their exact population numbers is still ongoing.
As seal and shark numbers grow, so does the likelihood of them interacting with the humans who lounge on the beach, swim in the water, and trawl fish in the ocean. Researchers wanted to see what the people who live, work, or vacation on the Cape think about the animals.
“There’s been a lack of understanding of the necessity to actually address rebounding marine wildlife issues. It’s been put on the backburner as not important,” Bogomolni said. “It’s important, and it needs to be addressed.”
The research comes as commercial fishers are looking for ways to keep seals away from their fishing gear without harming them, said Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
“As we’re developing these deterrents and doing research on what works and what doesn’t work, knowing that the rest of the population — voters, the public, the tourists — are supportive of those nonlethal management measures is really important,” Sanderson said.
While the authors did not suggest specific intervention or conservation policies, they said people are largely invested in the species’ success: Tourists hope to catch a glimpse of seals on the beach, and voters understand their importance in food webs. Most commercial fishers surveyed, however, viewed seals as damaging to the ecosystem and a threat to fish stocks.
Nearly all tourists and voters surveyed — 97 and 93 percent, respectively — and 74 percent of commercial fishers said they believe humans should learn to share the ocean with animals that live there, and large numbers of each group said they’re willing to deal with some inconvenience to have oceans that marine wildlife can thrive in: 94 percent of tourists, 86 percent of voters, and 66 percent of commercial fishers.
People surveyed said they would support policies that lead to a healthier ecosystem.
“The top priority for both voters and tourists is management for the benefits of the ecosystem,” said Jennifer Jackman, a politics and policy professor at Salem State University who worked as principal investigator on the study. “For fishers, management for the benefit of the ecosystem is second only to management and the benefit of fisheries.”
And all three groups said they disagreed with statements like “recreational use of the ocean is more important than protecting marine wildlife” and “the primary value of the ocean is to provide benefit for humans.” Tourists were the most likely to say they supported conservation efforts for their own sake, even if they didn’t result in economic benefits for humans.
The study’s authors will send their findings to Cape Cod towns, who can use their findings to guide interactions between humans and the animals. That could come in the form of more signs on beaches where seals like to lounge, or public service announcements about how to avoid interactions with sharks.
“It’s pretty clear that the public — tourists, voters, fishers — want more education, and they believe that there is a need for more education,” said Lisa Sette, a biologist with the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.
Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.