Dr. Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries tags a great white

Dr. Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries places an acoustic tag on a white shark off the coast of Chatham. Photo courtesy of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

 

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perhaps the most prominently misunderstood animal in our ecosystem, and stimulating a conversation that challenges the outdated perception that criminalizes sharks.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.”