Cape Cod National Seashore Hosts Cape Cod Shark Work Group

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Cape Cod National Seashore Hosts Cape Cod Shark Work Group

On Tuesday, January 12, 2016, Cape Cod National Seashore hosted a shark work group meeting. The meeting brought together public safety professionals from Cape Cod National Seashore and the towns of Plymouth, Chatham, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown, along with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, to continue to collaborate on shark knowledge and safety efforts.

Dr. Greg Skomal of Massachusetts Marine Fisheries presented the latest preliminary information of white shark movements, population study and predatory behavior.Dr. Alison Kock, Lead Scientist for the Shark Spotter Program, Cape Town, South Africa, gave an in depth look at the evolution, successes and challenges ofher cities shark spotter program.

Dr. Kock's visit was sponsored by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.Workgroup members expressed their appreciation to Cynthia Wigren, President &Co-Founder of the Conservancy for her efforts to bring in Dr. Kock's expertise from a region of the world which has extensive experience with serious shark/swimmer interaction.Dr. Kock reviewed Cape Town's approach toward white shark species protection as well as public safety efforts.

Seashore Superintendent George Price said, "We very much appreciate the continuing efforts of the multi-town and agency shark work group to keep up with the latest information about white shark behavior near our swimming beaches and to learn from communities which have been dealing with white sharks for a long time.We are fortunate to have Dr. Skomal, Dr. Kock, and Ms. Wigren share their knowledge with this group."Members of this multi-town and agency group continue to share innovative ways to message shark safety to the public and learn from leading shark experts to inform us on the most current scientific information to help guide our proactive public safety education, awareness and response.

The national seashore, the towns of Cape Cod and the Islands, the Massachusetts Shark Research Program, and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy have worked together to produce shark advisory signs for beaches, and brochures that provide education and safety tips for beach users.Brochures about shark information may be obtained at all National Park Service beaches and can be found seen on the park's website at nps.gov/caco.

 

 

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The Comeback of the Atlantic Great White Shark

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The Comeback of the Atlantic Great White Shark

By Dustin Wicksell for Earth Island Journal

Along with rising numbers, sharks are enjoying improved public perception along the US Atlantic Coast

Beachgoers in Cape Cod made headlines this year by taking action that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago and rushing to the aid of several stranded great white sharks. Their efforts, which saved one of the three sharks that washed ashore in Cape Cod this year, indicate not only that the species has made a dramatic comeback in the Northern Atlantic, but also that popular attitudes toward these predators have changed drastically in recent years.  Once seen as mindless killing machines, great white sharks are now increasingly understood as a key facet of the ocean's ecosystem.

In the late 1970s, great white sharks experienced an unprecedented onslaught of negative publicity. With the 1976 release of Jaws, the public became terrified of entering the water, lest they encounter a "rogue" great white that would habitually target humans. Both the Jaws novel, released in 1974, and the film were inspired by Victor Coppleson’s 1958 book Shark Attack, which advanced the theory that once a predatory animal like a great white shark tasted human blood, it would be inclined to strike at the same prey again. This theory has since been widely discredited

The myth of the blood-thirsty great white proved dangerous for the sharks. Already in demand for their fins and jaws, anglers also began to target white sharks as trophies, which further decimated the species in the Northern Atlantic. Though research on great whites is scarce, by the 1980s the Atlantic population had declined to an estimated 27 percent of its 1961 size.

In 1997 the great white shark became a federally protected species in the Atlantic, which meant commercial and recreational harvest were prohibited in the region. This marked a turnaround for the species. According to NOAA, the number of great whites in the Atlantic is now at 69 percent of its 1961 population size, a significant increase from the 1980s. Thanks to one of the world's largest seal colonies, located at Monomoy Island, a global great white hotspot has also developed around Cape Cod. 

The growth of the Atlantic population has stimulated shark research in the region, as well as education and outreach efforts to improve public perception of great whites. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, established in Cape Cod in 2012, has played a critical role in both of these efforts. This volunteer-based nonprofit group works with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to document and tag white sharks in the region, identifying each shark by its distinctive markings and coloration patterns. In 2014, the conservancy identified 68 individual great whites swimming off the cape. As this year's season drew to a close, conservancy researchers had cataloged more than 120 white sharks, 80 of which were new visitors.

The efforts of the conservancy have also extended to public outreach, including marine biology focused summer camps and educational programs for children. For example, the Gills Club for young girls connects students with female marine biologists. The conservancy also offers lectures and public presentations for adults, works with public safety officials to produce advisory signs and educational materials, and manages a joint fundraising and outreach campaign that has placed great white sharks on license plates across the state of Massachusetts. Additionally, the conservancy has been instrumental in the development of regulations enacted this past summer that establish permit requirements for cage diving, baiting, and feeding sharks and are intended to safeguard both local swimmers and local shark populations. 

Social media outreach has also been central to the conservancy’s efforts. Wayne Davis, a spotter pilot who sights sharks from the air and helps direct the conservancy's research boat towards them, has produced a number of stunning images of the cape’s white sharks, including photos of predation events. Staff have also captured footage from the research vessel, including a video of the first great white shark breach attack filmed off Cape Cod, recorded earlier this year. These photos and videos have provided the fuel for a robust social media outreach campaign that helps reveal great white sharks in their natural habitat to the public at large.

Outreach efforts paid off in a major way earlier this year when beachgoers rushed to the aid of the stranded white sharks. Their reaction highlighted a distinct shift in perception regarding great whites

“It’s a wonderful testament to how attitudes are changing toward sharks,” Dr. Greg Skomal, a senior fisheries biologist with Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, told the Washington Post. “I think they’re morphing away from animals to be feared to animals to be fascinated about.”

OCEARCH, another nonprofit focused on innovative shark research and social media outreach, has also been instrumental in changing public perception regarding great white sharks. Founded by Chris Fischer in 2011, OCEARCH produced the widely popular TV show Shark Wranglers, which aired on the History Channel and reached an audience of over 1.4 million viewers. OCEARCH primarily engages in shark research and global tagging efforts, and has developed a website and phone app that allow users to track their favorite tagged sharks in near-real time. 

OCEARCH gives sharks names rather than numbers for the app, allowing users to connect more personally with the apex predators. Some of the sharks tagged by the group have gone on to become marine superstars. Katharine, a great white tagged in Cape Cod in 2013, made international headlines the following year as she traveled along the East Coast of the United States between the Gulf of Mexico and Massachusetts. Katharine's exploits were documented by numerous media outlets, while over 16,000 people followed a Twitter account in her name. Katharine's following now exceeds 35,000 users.

Fischer described her dramatic coastal pattern, which often brought her close to populated beaches, as unique, and a driving factor in her popularity. “She is so coastal, almost living on the beaches, as well. It makes her somewhat of a media darling as she passes by," he told Space Coast Daily. "At the same time, she is giving us the most comprehensive look at her life.”

This year, Katharine’s celebrity status was surpassed by another star, 16-foot Mary Lee. Early in 2015, Mary Lee began moving up the coast from her winter home near Georgia. A large female white shark weighing some 3,456 pounds, Mary Lee was tagged by OCEARCH in 2012 off Cape Cod. When she began swimming northward toward New York, she became a living ambassador for great whites. By the time Mary Lee turned south once again in early June, she had amassed more than 80,000 followers on Twitter, making her one of the most popular representatives of her species in a generation. The Twitter account is run by an East Coast reporter who has declined to be identified in the media.

Though public perception of sharks has changed on the Atlantic coast, work remains to be done worldwide. In Australia, for example, a string of fatal and near-fatal attacks have led to intensified calls for a shark cull. Additionally, a controversial early-warning policy in Western Australia, used to protect beach goers, has been utilized in at least one attempt to preemptively kill a white shark, prompting scientists to consider withholding shark tracking data. 

The great white shark may still be a target in some regions, but rebounding populations in the Atlantic demonstrate the power of regulation, research, and outreach to change the tide of public perception and facilitate species recovery. 

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Playing Tag With Sharks

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Playing Tag With Sharks

By Doug Fraser, Cape Cod Times

CHATHAM — The summer crowds and traffic on Main Street were down to a trickle. Leaves sifted onto lawns, and the birdsongs and rattle and hum of insect life were stilled for another year.
As the Aleutian Dream nudged past rolling breakers at the mouth of Chatham Harbor, the ocean told another story. Rippling V’s of migrating waterfowl filled the skies. All around the vessel, spouts from fin whales on their way to the West Indies, pausing to gorge themselves on sand eels, burst into the air like escaping jets of steam. The inky black backs of minke whales, likewise headed for equatorial regions, jackknifed as they dived on the eels below.
Notably absent were the great white sharks that seemed omnipresent at summer’s end, closing town beaches from Orleans up to Wellfleet as they cruised close to shore, occasionally beaching themselves in their pursuit of seals in Harwich, Chatham and Wellfleet.
But tagging data going back to 2010 showed that most great whites were gone from the Cape by mid- to late October.
“It’s only the big slobs hanging out now,” joked state Division of Marine Fisheries shark scientist Greg Skomal. In the summer, average sizes hovered around the 12- to 13-foot mark, but most of the sharks they had encountered this fall were to 14 to 15 feet long.
Perched on a pulpit, a narrow catwalk jutting forward from the bow of the Aleutian Dream, Skomal eased his back onto the hard aluminum rail and stretched his legs, waiting for word from above. Despite the bright sunshine and blue skies, wispy high cirrus clouds foretold of the coming storm that likely would end what had been a record-breaking shark-tagging season.
Although technicians were still examining video recordings used to identify sharks by their unique scarring patterns, the season thus far had yielded 24 great white sharks fitted with acoustic tags, 120 sharks identified using video, 80 of those seen for the first time. Skomal was pretty sure that was more than had been reported in other hot spots such as California and South Africa in their tagging seasons.
In year two of a five-year study designed to estimate the numbers of sharks that visit Cape waters each summer and the greater population in the Northwest Atlantic, Skomal ventured a rough guess of 280 sharks coming to Cape waters each year. The Cape wasn’t the only place sharks were seen — the acoustic tags that sent out a signal identifying each individual shark had been detected on receivers moored in both inshore and offshore waters from Jupiter, Florida, to Halifax, Nova Scotia — our massive gray seal colony, the largest in the U.S., resulted in the biggest gathering of great whites in the North Atlantic.
The spotter plane droned on, circling overhead. Seals massed along Chatham’s South Beach shoreline sent up an eerie howl as the boat drew closer.
The radio crackled as pilot Wayne Davis saw a shark emerge from the blackness of deep water silhouetted against the white of the sandy shallows, its size and sinuous tail stroke apparent from hundreds of feet in the air.
Boat captain John King pointed the 24-foot Aleutian Dream toward 4-foot waves breaking over the sandbars, where a trio of seals bobbed, unaware of the shark, staring at the approaching vessel. King, a former Alaskan crab fisherman who retired from the biopharmaceutical industry, is a board member for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and donated his vessel and time for the second straight year to help the tagging program the conservancy supports through donations and fundraising.
Two years ago, the researchers switched from a larger, deeper-draft tuna vessel to King’s smaller craft in part because King was willing to donate his time and vessel, saving them $2,500 per trip. But the shark-tagging team found it was frequently pursuing white sharks in shallow water, often inside the line of breakers, where the bigger vessel risked grounding or capsizing. King posted a lookout to keep an eye for the bigger breakers astern as he maneuvered the Aleutian Dream alongside a 15-foot great white. Lindsay Graff, a shark scientist from Montpelier, Vermont, who was working with bullhead sharks in Fiji before she signed on with Skomal for the summer, lowered a hydrophone into the water. The crackle and hiss of waves was apparent, but there was no distinctive ping of a signal from a tagged shark, so the team knew it was likely working with a new, unidentified fish.
Sweeping the water with a long pole tipped with a high-definition video camera, Skomal recorded underwater footage of the shark that would be analyzed later. Switching to a harpoon with a surgically sharp detachable tip tethered to a cigar-sized acoustic tag that would broadcast an identifying signal for the next 10 years, Skomal tagged the shark with a short jab. It swam a little off from the boat then turned.
“He’s coming back at me,” Skomal said. Broad, and more than half the length of the boat, it swam leisurely by, under the pulpit, rolling onto its side, the white of its belly flashing, so that it could look up, as if sizing up the vessel and crew.
Then, it returned to the hunt.
A hunt no less tenuous and necessary goes on every year behind the scenes and makes the tagging operation possible. Although Skomal and fellow shark researcher John Chisholm’s salaries are paid by the state Division of Marine Fisheries, the $90,000 a year to purchase electronic tagging equipment, pay for spotter planes and pilots and boat expenses must be raised by the conservancy through donations and events.
This year they had help as National Geographic donated the acoustic tags. Conservancy director Cynthia Wigren said a new program offering a trip on the shark vessel really paid off. The Chatham Bars Inn, which gave the conservancy the use of its dock for the season, also marketed the trips to its guests without taking a cut of the proceeds, Wigren said. At $2,500 for two spots on the vessel, the boat was filled for most of the summer season and had a waiting list, and raised $40,000. On two occasions, people paid $5,000 for the trip because they wanted to contribute more, Wigren said.
“There were people who certainly had an interest in the organization who would have donated regardless, but the majority were just looking for that experience, to check it off that bucket list,” she said. Regardless of the motive, they were rewarded with a close-up of one of the world’s greatest predators, a prehistoric survivor with a movie star cachet. Until recently, great whites were so rarely seen even the scientists that studied them had trouble finding one in the wild. But those who paid their $2,500 were treated to something they once would have had to travel to distant oceans to see.
“Everyone we took out saw a shark,” Wigren said. Sometimes a couple of dozen of them in a single day, and their reactions varied from welling up with tears to yells from men excited to finally see a great white, Wigren said.
With three more years to the population study, Wigren is hoping she will finally be able to tap into a new source of revenue that promises steady returns. She has enough orders that the state can begin producing Atlantic White Shark Conservancy license plates. It will raise $21,000 in the first year. Within five years she hopes to have 3,000 plates ordered, meaning $60,000 a year.
Newly minted member of the conservancy’s board of directors Jon Dodd, and his wife Joan, were two supporters on board the Aleutian Dream on the most recent trip. A self-described great white enthusiast his whole life, Dodd recalled them being so rare that, driving to the movies 20 years ago, he diverted to a dock to see a white shark brought in by a fisherman.
“So, to think you have 100 sharks here, with four spotted (that day) at 15 to 16 feet, it’s fantastic,” Dodd said. “It’s wild, wild.”

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