Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Cape Cod’s Gray Seal and White Shark Problem Is Anything but Black-and-White

Animals
Cape Cod’s Gray Seal and White Shark Problem Is Anything but Black-and-White
Waves from the Atlantic Ocean crash against a scenic beach on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This sandy peninsula is a popular summer vacation destination and is also known for its many Great White sharks. Velvetfish / iStock / Getty Images

By Jason Bittel

On a sunny Saturday in mid-September, 26-year-old Arthur Medici was boogie-boarding in the waves off Wellfleet, Massachusetts, when a great white shark bit his leg. Despite the efforts of a friend who pulled him ashore and the paramedics who rushed him to the hospital, Medici died from his injuries. It's about as tragic a story as you can imagine: a young life cut short due to a freak run-in with a wild animal.


Medici is the first person to die from a shark bite on Cape Cod in 82 years. (Another incident, which occurred in nearby Truro in August, was not fatal.) Medici's death is also this year's only shark-bite fatality in the U.S. and one of just five reported worldwide in 2018. All of which is to say, it's still extremely unlikely for a human to be killed by a shark. Statistically speaking, you are much, much more likely to be killed by bees, lightning or government execution.

Still, in the wake of Medici's death, some local officials are calling for a cull—but not of sharks. They want to go after gray seals, the sharks' prey.

Seals have inhabited Cape Cod for some 4,000 years, but for the past century or so, they've been scarce in this part of the world. New England fishermen in the 19th century saw the animals as competition for their cod harvest and killed as many as 135,000 of them between 1888 and 1962. Hard to believe, but the Massachusetts government offered a $5 bounty for every seal nose produced as recently as the 1960s. Not so surprisingly, gray seals nearly disappeared from the area around that time.

In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act made killing gray seals and other marine mammals illegal, and since then, the Cape's seal population has rebounded to as many as 50,000. In addition to the seals being part of the Cape's food web, evidence suggests that the animals play a role in transporting nitrogen and other nutrients out of the sea and onto shore via their excrement.

The thing is, now that the seals are back, so are the sharks.

While shark sightings have risen in recent years, experts say it's not because shark populations have experienced a boom, said Carlos Garcia-Quijano, an environmental anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island. It's because the sharks we do have are spending more time around the Cape—where the seals are.

A Massachusetts state shark scientist, Gregory Skomal, has been tagging white sharks for years now in an attempt to find meaning in their movement patterns. He said the predators seem to be reacting more to what the seals do than anything else. "I can study the heck out of sharks, but I really need more data on what the seals are doing," Skomal told the Cape Cod Times last year.

Medici's death makes it difficult to ignore the fact that the gray seal conservation success story has increased the presence of great white sharks. Garcia-Quijano has been talking to people all over Cape Cod in an attempt to better understand how communities process this kind of event and how they are interacting with wildlife in general.

For Garcia-Quijano, business owners have the most interesting relationship with sharks and seals because both can "attract and also have the potential to repel tourism." Tourists will have a different take on the local charismatic megafauna than people who live on Cape Cod year-round. And fishermen's concerns do not always coincide with those of national park employees or conservationists whose job it is to uphold laws that protect wildlife. What surprised Garcia-Quijano is that nearly everyone he spoke to from those groups are opposed to the idea of a shark cull.

The seals, however, aren't getting as much love. "It's not everybody," said Garcia-Quijano. "And I wouldn't even say the majority, but there is certainly a vocal minority of Cape Cod residents I talked with who have been mad at the seals for a while."

For starters, these mammals spend a lot of time on shore and, well, when they've gotta go, they've gotta go. All that nitrogen has to be deposited somewhere, after all. Seal feces is definitely stinky (the animals eat fish, remember), but some people claim (falsely) that large herds can contaminate the water. Even though scientific research refutes this, public perception isn't always based on fact.

Some fishermen don't like seals because they believe the whiskered predators steal fish off lines and out of gillnets and even break into lobster pots to dine on crustaceans. There's no good scientific evidence to suggest whether seals actually do this, said Garcia-Quijano, but again, the perception that they do is strong.

And despite solid scientific evidence that shark culls do not reduce shark–human encounters, there are, of course, a few Cape Cod residents who want to go the Jaws route. To catch sharks, Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beaty would like to line the beaches with baited hooks attached to buoys—in other words, to create indiscriminate killing machines.

So, is any kind of cull in the works? In a word, no. As marine mammals, gray seals are protected by the federal government. And federal and state regulations make it illegal to possess, sell, or purchase great white sharks or their parts.

Of course, protections can be given and they can be taken away. Just look at the gray wolf, which was added to the endangered species list in 1974, and then delisted and re-listed numerous times over the course of the next four decades. And while Congress has failed to repeal the Marine Mammal Act in the past, that doesn't mean it won't keep trying.

Ultimately, Garcia-Quijano said Cape Cod has neither a shark problem nor a seal problem. "You're dealing with a people problem," he said. "This is all a people process—people making decisions about what their ecosystem is going to look like."

But sometimes nature just doesn't work that way.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

A group of climate activists that have been cycling from the North of the country in stages to draw attention to the climate case are arriving to the Court of Justice on the day that the climate lawsuit against Shell starts in The Hague, on December 1st, 2020. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Julia Conley

Representing more than 17,000 claimants who support climate action, the international organization Friends of the Earth on Tuesday opened its case against fossil fuel giant Shell at The Hague by demanding that a judge order the corporation to significantly reduce its carbon emissions in the next decade.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Eat Just, Inc. announced that its cultured chicken has been approved for sale in Singapore as an ingredient in chicken bites. The company has developed other cultured chicken formats as well. Eat Just

As concern mounts over the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, Singapore has issued the world's first regulatory approval for lab-grown meat.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Wildfires are seen burning out of control on November 30, 2020 on Fraser Island, Australia. Queensland Fire and Emergency Services / Getty Images

The world's largest sand island has been on fire for the past six weeks due to a campfire, and Australia's firefighters have yet to prevent flames from destroying the fragile ecosystem.

Read More Show Less
A plane sprays pesticide over the Wynwood neighborhood in the hope of controlling and reducing the number of mosquitos, some of which may be capable of spreading the Zika virus on Aug. 6, 2016 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

A national nonprofit revealed Tuesday that testing commissioned by the group as well as separate analysis conducted by Massachusetts officials show samples of an aerially sprayed pesticide used by the commonwealth and at least 25 other states to control mosquito-borne illnesses contain toxic substances that critics call "forever chemicals."

Read More Show Less
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern plants a tree as part of Trees That Count, a project to help New Zealand make a positive impact on climate change, on June 30, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images

The government of New Zealand declared a climate emergency on Wednesday, a symbolic step recognizing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predictions of substantial global warming if emissions do not fall.

Read More Show Less