The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy aims to build awareness of a misunderstood species
As Cape Cod’s most notorious summer resident, the return of white sharks to the Cape heralds the beginning of a fruitful research season for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), in partnership with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC) of Chatham. Returning in greater numbers each year, great whites are more prevalent than ever on the Cape, and the AWSC is committed to fronting novel research in the field while combating the negative perception of sharks on shore.
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy emerged as a nonprofit in 2012, as the Massachusetts DMF was lacking sufficient funding for white shark research. Cynthia Wigren, founder of AWSC, states that she started the conservancy after discovering that white shark research off the coast of Cape Cod depended upon outside funding. “There was no way for people to make a tax deductible donation to help fund the research,” says Wigren, and thus, the conservancy offers financial support for research that continues to impact public safety and a greater understanding of the species. March of 2016 brought the merger of AWSC and the Chatham Shark Center public outreach facility, creating a powerful hybrid that continues to bring contemporary research into the public sphere.
The Chatham Shark Center is bringing visitors face-to-face with perhaps the most prominently misunderstood animal in our ecosystem, and stimulating a conversation that challenges the outdated perception that criminalizes sharks. The center’s interactive displays expose visitors to peaceful shark encounters and place a focus on the science of sharks as well as conservation.
“Our main goal was to figure out how to use research to improve the safety of both humans and sharks,” says Education Director Marianne Long. “It’s somewhat of a learning curve for people accustomed to seeing ‘Save the Whale’ initiatives, or pandas as the face of conservation. With the conservancy’s public outreach program, we’re communicating that sharks are essential to our ecosystems and trying to eliminate the negative connotations.”
AWSC is attracting the curiosity of a broad demographic that spans many ages and nationalities with tourism on the Cape. Long explains how AWSC and the public outreach sector is connecting with visitors and locals, encouraging the public to respect the elusive natives that share the Cape’s waters. She stresses that it is as important to teach the public about the prevalence of sharks as it is to make them aware of personal safety. “When we enter the ocean, we’re in their territory,” says Long. “It’s important for people to respect that, for our own safety and that of the sharks.”
To include the public in research efforts and help build awareness, AWSC launched “Sharktivity” in 2016. The app allows users to upload photos and GPS coordinates of white shark sightings along the Cape, as well as receive regular updates from research efforts. The information provided by the public is reviewed by the DMF for authenticity and is reported through the app. With thousands of downloads, the app serves as a conduit that merges science and the public—a citizen-science tool, as described by the AWSC team. This connection is truly what makes the conservancy special, according to Wigren. In the realm of shark-related nonprofits, AWSC is distinctive because it directly connects the public and emerging research.
On the water, the AWSC supports the efforts of the DMF research, conducted under Dr. Greg Skomal, a senior marine fisheries scientist with the agency. His team is out on the water twice per week tagging and cataloging sharks around the Cape throughout the research season. Between seasons, the team is compiling and analyzing data.
“We are focusing on two major vectors of research,” says Skomal. “One is movement ecology, or the migratory patterns of white sharks, and the other is the estimation of population size.” These are the people behind the warning flags seen on beaches across the Cape—there is a direct line of communication between the scientists and beach managers, who look to the shark research being funded by AWSC for guidance. “The more we know about this species in terms of its abundance, where it spends its time and its behavior, the better equipped we are to advise the best approach for enhancing public safety,” says Skomal.
According to Dr. Skomal, the Cape is seeing a slow increase in shark activity directly correlated with the growing seal population. Between 2014 and 2016, over 200 white sharks were identified and catalogued along the coast of Cape Cod by the DMF, and many of them return year after year. In light of recent shark activity throughout the summer of 2017, the question has been raised as to how to properly address public safety concerns. Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beaty went so far as to suggest a hook-and-kill mitigation strategy to keep sharks away from encroaching on Cape Cod shores. While Beaty has since backed off his original proposal, AWSC issued a response via social media ensuring that shark presence is an indication of a healthy ecosystem.
Skomal points out that sharks are intuitive hunters; in the case of the seal attack off the shore of Nauset Beach last summer, sharks routinely choose seals as prey instead of swimmers and surfers. Even when sharks make mistakes, such as the paddleboard incident in Wellfleet last August, they typically retreat when they realize their target is not prey.
“The days of characterizing sharks as demons are changing,” Skomal says. “The perception of sharks on Cape Cod has been very positive relative to the increasing presence of these predators. We need to continue viewing sharks realistically instead of exploiting those aspects that demonize them.”
AWSC has made it clear that any mitigation strategy that focuses on mediating the shark population will stimulate controversy. Humans are interlopers in ocean waters, and thus human behaviors must be evaluated before solutions are focused on the sharks themselves.
The prevalence of shark activity on the Cape speaks to the importance of communication between professionals and the public. The symbiosis of the AWSC and Massachusetts DMF is creating waves as more is learned about the behavior of great whites. Nationally and globally revered, the multifaceted organization is tirelessly working to develop greater knowledge of the Cape’s most intriguing summer resident, while helping to build an understanding of a species so long misunderstood.
Abigail Rec, a former editorial intern for Cape Cod Life Publications, is a rising junior at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.