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Cape Cod towns get funding to cut response times following shark attack

Six towns will receive $383,000 to help them respond faster to shark attacks. Seven months ago, a boogie boarder bitten off Wellfleet died before rescuers could get him to a hospital.
Six towns will receive $383,000 to help them respond faster to shark attacks. Seven months ago, a boogie boarder bitten off Wellfleet died before rescuers could get him to a hospital.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2018)

Six Cape Cod towns will receive $383,000 in state funding to help them respond more quickly to a shark attack, seven months after a boogie boarder was bitten by a shark off Wellfleet and died before rescuers could get him to the hospital.

The funding will allow Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and Chatham to buy stretchers, tourniquets, dune vehicles, call boxes for beach parking lots, and satellite phones for lifeguards, officials said.

The towns requested the equipment to cut response times following a shark attack like the one that killed Arthur Medici, a 26-year-old engineering student from Revere who was fatally bitten while boogie boarding off Newcomb Hollow Beach in September.

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Officials say that while an ambulance was able to reach the beach parking lot quickly, paramedics struggled to haul their gear onto the sand and get Medici to the hospital.

“We all saw those images of beachgoers having to help public safety officials push a gurney up a steep dune cliff,” said state Representative Sarah Peake, a Provincetown Democrat who helped secure the funding from the Baker administration.

Medici was the first person killed by a shark in Massachusetts since 1936.

A month before his death, however, a New York doctor swimming off Long Nook Beach in Truro was bitten in the leg. He survived after punching the shark in the gills, but he needed nearly 12 pints of blood and six surgeries.

Great white sharks have been spotted with increasing frequency off Cape beaches in recent years, drawn by the large herds of seals congregating along the shoreline.

Cape officials say they are concerned the sharks not only a pose a threat to public safety but to the region’s lucrative tourism industry, which generates more than $1 billion in spending annually.

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Public relations experts, resort owners, scientists, and local officials plan to meet Friday to discuss how best to explain the shark threat to anxious tourists arriving this summer.

Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, which is hosting the closed-door public relations summit, said she’s not sure what the right message is yet.

“We have to be fair and honest, but we also have to maintain some confidence in the destination,” she said. “It’s a very delicate dance that we’re dancing at the moment.”

While officials are focused on improving response times and adjusting their public messaging, they have hired a consulting firm to study more elaborate measures to prevent shark attacks, such as nets, shark-detecting sonar buoys, and drones.

The report by the Woods Hole Group will not be completed until September — ludicrously late in the opinion of some residents, who have launched a GoFundMe page to test a $200,000 shark-detecting buoy system on a Cape beach this summer.

The campaign has raised $35,260 so far. Even if fully funded, the project would still need approval from local officials, who have said they would prefer to wait for the consultant’s report before deploying any shark-repellent system.

Daniel R. Hoort, Wellfleet’s town administrator, said he is concerned that sonar buoys and other products designed to lessen the risk of an attack could give beachgoers a false sense of security and expose the town to legal liability.

“I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “You want to do something to make people safer, but if you do something to make people safer and you’re not making them 100 percent safer, then you’re putting them at risk and the town at risk.”

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Cape officials have cautioned that there is no silver bullet to prevent attacks, an assessment shared by academic experts who have studied buoys, nets, and other shark-deterrent systems that have been used for decades in South Africa and Australia.

“The short answer is there’s not a lot that works,” Chris Neff, a shark bite researcher at the University of Sydney, told the Globe last September. “There are so many variables at play that it really creates a problem for public safety officials.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.