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The seaside destination that gave the world Jaws is going through its own, real-life shark crisis. Two shark attacks, including the nation’s lone human fatality so far this year, have sparked months of debate on Cape Cod about how to respond before the start of the next beach season.
The question promises to be among the most closely watched of 2019 in Massachusetts.
The region south of Boston where the 1975 blockbuster was filmed hosts about 4 million visitors a year and represents more than $1 billion in tourism spending, not to mention thousands of local jobs.
“Many of these solutions might sound good, but the devil’s in the details,” says Gregory Skomal, a state marine biologist who has been studying the region’s great whites for years and has been involved in the local debates. “It’s ultimately going to come down to what’s feasible.”
A primer on where things stand:
On Sept. 15, 26-year-old Revere resident Arthur Medici was attacked by a shark while boogie boarding off of a beach in Wellfleet. His death was the state’s first human shark fatality since 1936. Weeks earlier, 61-year-old New York resident Bill Lytton survived a shark attack while swimming off a beach in nearby Truro by punching the powerful predator in the gills. He spent months recovering in a Boston hospital from the Aug. 15 attack, which was the state’s first since 2012.
A GROWING DEBATE
The attacks have sparked spirited forums drawing out a colorful slice of the Cape Cod community, from surfers and environmental activists to marine biologists, commercial fisherman, lifelong residents and shop owners. Those gatherings aren’t expected to diminish next year. Among the first will be a “Shark Conversation” with state officials, business leaders, scientists and others that the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce is organizing. Wendy Northcross, the chamber’s CEO, says the hope is to brainstorm ways to “maintain confidence in Cape Cod as a destination and to keep people safe.”
Making sure visitors at some of the peninsula’s most remote beaches can quickly alert emergency officials is among the early priorities identified by town officials. Some communities are looking into installing emergency call boxes or pay phones near beach entrances. Others have also suggested appealing to mobile carriers to boost cell coverage that can be spotty at best in places.
IMPROVED EMERGENCY RESPONSE
Placing “trauma kits” stocked with tourniquets, gloves and other medical supplies at beaches is another measure local officials are planning to introduce in 2019. Leslie Reynolds, chief ranger for the Cape Cod National Seashore, says it has already purchased kits for its six, federally managed beaches. She says they will be strategically placed where the public can quickly access them when lifeguards aren’t on duty. Local police and fire departments, meanwhile, have been hosting public trainings on how to tie a proper tourniquet, and some officials have discussed possibly extending lifeguard service beyond the traditional season’s end on Labor Day.
EYES IN THE SKY
Detecting sharks through underwater sonar or aerial drones has emerged as another popular talking point at local meetings. Communities in Australia and California have been using drones in recent years. Some are even equipped with sophisticated software that discerns sharks from dolphins, whales and other marine life. But local officials have voiced concerns about cost and effectiveness. Daniel Hoort, the town administrator in Wellfleet, the site of this year’s fatal attack, also worries early warning systems might give swimmers a “false sense of security.”
BARRIERS AND NETS
Constructing ocean barriers to enclose popular swimming beaches has been discussed by officials in recent years as the shark population has surged. The netted barriers are used in parts of Australia, South Africa and Hong Kong. But among the persistent concerns is that the netting could be harmful to other marine life. The Cape’s rough waters and abundance of seaweed and other debris could also make them costly to maintain.
CULLING SEALS AND SHARKS
Some local surfers and fishermen have formed a group to pursue perhaps the most controversial solution: reducing the Cape’s seal and shark populations outright. The “Atlantic Human Conservancy” is a riff on the region’s prominent shark research and education organization, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. Founder Karl Hoefer didn’t respond to emails seeking comment, but he’s said the group will push for an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act so seals can once again be hunted. Great white sharks are also federally protected.
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