Shark researchers bit back Wednesday after an elected official this week proposed placing special traps in Cape Cod waters to kill off great whites swimming too close to public beaches.
On Tuesday, Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beaty floated what he called a shark mitigation strategy that would involve tossing baited drum lines near popular beach destinations, using hooks to snag the sharks. If a shark didn’t die on a hook, Beaty said officials could shoot the predator.
“It is only a matter of time before someone’s child is killed or maimed at a Cape beach because of an encounter with one of these man-eating sharks!” Beaty said in an e-mail. “We need to be proactive in mitigating the problem, not reactive once it is too late.”
The call for culling sharks came several days after a seal was killed at Nauset beach, causing a bloody scene not far from swimmers. On Wednesday, a shark bit into a paddleboard in Wellfleet, prompting beach closures.
But experts from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, the nonprofit conducting a population study of great whites off Cape Cod with officials from the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries, balked at Beaty’s plan.
In a Facebook post, the conservancy said it is “ill-considered, indiscriminate, and will not influence beach safety.”
The conservancy said a similar method was terminated by the Australian Environmental Protection Authority after the organization found that it didn’t work, and “there was no evidence that the cull made beaches safer.”
Looking at Beaty’s concerns through a different lens, the conservancy said the presence of white sharks off Cape Cod is an indication of a healthy eco-system — not a public threat.
“The inshore waters off many Cape Cod and South Shore beaches are preferred feeding grounds for white sharks. They come to these areas to feed on a natural prey item — seals,” they said. “Shark advisory signs, flags, videos, and brochures produced by the Regional Shark Working Group provide Cape Cod beach users with information to improve public safety.”
The last fatal shark attack in Massachusetts was in 1936, according to state marine biologist Greg Skomal.
Nonfatal attacks are also rare, with only a handful recorded statewide in the last century.
Besides Wednesday’s incident in Wellfleet, the most recent run-ins occurred in 2012, when a man was bitten in Truro; and 2014, when a pair of kayakers off the coast of Plymouth were knocked into the water by a great white. In that instance, the shark bit into the kayak.
Skomal said this type of proposal would need be taken to the federal level, because the intentional killing of white sharks in currently prohibited.
“Those rules would need to be changed, or exemptions would need to be put in place,” he said.
Beaty, the county commissioner and a Republican, previously served time in federal prison in 1991 for making death threats against President George H.W. Bush and US Senator Ted Kennedy. When it comes to the sharks, he stressed that for now, it’s just an idea.
He still needs to contact the appropriate officials and start a “comprehensive public discussion” about what he called the “increasing Cape Cod shark problem.”
Earlier this month, Skomal said that shark activity on the Cape this summer has been similar to past years.
He added that a lot of questions need to be asked about Beaty’s strategy.
“Is there a need? Has there been enough of a threat to human life that warrants this kind of reaction?,” Skomal said. “Also, from a historical point of view, have they proven this method to be useful? Based on all available evidence, no, they haven’t.”
Great white sharks are prone to arrive to Cape Cod waters due to the abundance of gray seals, the predators’ preferred meal.
For the last four years, the state and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy have been tagging and tracking the sharks, mostly off Chatham.Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.