Nearly every summer for the past two decades, Erin Graeber of Braintree has traveled to Cape Cod with her family, often visiting local beaches for a swim. But in 2018, after 26-year-old Arthur Medici was killed by a great white shark off the coast of Wellfleet, Graeber decided her days of ocean swimming on the Cape were behind her. “The joy I get from being in the water is now overshadowed by the fear,” she says. “It’s not worth it.”
Graeber is not alone. Last summer, a school of striped bass was enough to send me and every other swimmer at a beach near Portland, Maine, scrambling to shore. Admittedly, stripers bear little resemblance to gray seals, the favorite prey of great white sharks (often called “white sharks” by scientists), but after a shark attack in nearby Harpswell killed 63-year-old Julie Dimperio Holowach in 2020, we weren’t taking any chances.
Shark attacks are exceedingly rare. Since 1837, there have been 11 unprovoked attacks in New England, according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File. Even using the word “attack” to describe a shark incident can be a misnomer, scientists say. Rather, it’s a case of mistaken identity, where sharks confuse humans for their prey. Unfortunately, this does little to assuage the concerns of swimmers and surfers.
But there’s a good news story that is often overlooked amid dramatic headlines: The increased presence of white sharks in New England is evidence of a conservation success decades in the making.
Sharks evoke a sense of fear and fascination. These animals have existed for around 400 million years, predating humans, dinosaurs — even trees. They’ve survived four mass extinctions, yet it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to withstand human threats. Globally, more than a third of sharks and rays are at risk of extinction, making them the second most threatened class of vertebrates in the world (after amphibians). Humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks around the world each year, largely driven by demand for their fins. Shark fins are the key ingredient in a traditional Chinese delicacy known as shark fin soup, which is popular in some parts of Asia.
The status of white sharks in US waters is a rare bright spot in a sea of dire news: Today, the species appears to be faring well along both the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. But it wasn’t long ago that white shark numbers were in steep decline.
In New England, part of the reason for this was the annihilation of their prey. Between 1888 and 1962, gray and harbor seals were bounty hunted in Massachusetts and Maine, with hunters earning up to $5 per seal snout. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act established federal protections for seals, but by then, they had been virtually eliminated from New England waters.
The second blow was the 1975 release of Jaws. This iconic film inspired decades of unregulated white shark hunting — much to the devastation of Peter Benchley, the book’s author, who spent the remainder of his life as a shark conservationist. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that federal protections for white sharks were established. Since then, they have been spotted in increasing numbers along the New England coastline.
As apex predators, sharks can promote biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems. A recent study led by Florida International University researchers suggests sharks play a role in helping ecosystems recover after extreme weather events, and the presence of sharks has been shown to intimidate sea turtles, preventing them from overconsuming carbon-capturing seagrasses. By controlling the populations of their prey, sharks can have cascading impacts across a food web. The removal of sharks from coral reefs, for example, led to an increase in the numbers of snapper, which then depleted the population of herbivorous fish. Corals depend on these small fish to graze algae, which can ultimately smother and destroy a reef.
While sharks are often linked to the presence of healthy ecosystems, little is known as to why that is. Studying sharks is inherently challenging — marine food webs are large, complex, and, well, underwater. Scientists are only beginning to understand the ecological role of these animals.
The “good news” shark story extends beyond ecosystems to economics. Shark tourism is a booming global industry, and the number of shark tour operators on Cape Cod over the past few years has been growing.
Last month, research supported by the Woods Hole Sea Grant revealed that a large majority of Cape Cod tourists, residents, and commercial fishermen are willing to accept some inconvenience and risk to have oceans where marine wildlife can thrive. “This study dispels some of the myths that seals and sharks have a negative impact, especially in terms of tourism,” says Jennifer Jackman, the study’s lead researcher and a professor at Salem State University. “The tourist enthusiasm for marine wildlife overall is a very clear take-home message.”
As the weather warms and beachgoers and white sharks converge again along the New England coastline, there are likely to be more shark encounters. But there are steps you can take to understand and mitigate the risks of an attack — such as downloading the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s Sharktivity app and reviewing its public safety guide.
To me, there is something at once thrilling and humbling about stepping into the ocean and knowing I’m entering the habitat of ancient animals that were on this planet long before us. It’s their domain. I’m just grateful that a species we nearly destroyed has finally begun to return to its historic home.
Alix Morris is a science writer in Portland, Maine, who is writing a book about the recovery of seals in the Northwest Atlantic. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.