Why Culling Great White Sharks Is A Bad Idea

Dr. Greg Skomal gets ready to tag a great white shark in Cape waters. WAYNE DAVIS/ATLANTIC WHITE SHARK CONSERVANCY PHOTO

When we received Barnstable County Commissioner Ronald Beaty's press release last week announcing “Targeted, localized shark hazard mitigation strategy proposal,” we gave it a quick read and set it aside. We were on deadline and didn't see the announcement as big news, and having dealt with Beaty in the past, we did not take his idea of culling sharks by hooking and shooting them seriously.

Alas, others did.

By Wednesday, major media outlets, ranging from the Boston dailies and Forbes to network TV news, had run stories on the proposal, which garnered nearly universal derision. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy forcefully rejected it, and Dr. Greg Skomal, the region's leading shark expert, said even if the proposal could be carried out – which it can't, because it runs counter to state and federal laws – it would not make the Cape's beaches any safer.

By Friday, Beaty said that “pending issuance of alternative proposal,” he was putting his proposal on "indefinite interim freeze." Whatever that means.

But he clearly hadn't dropped the idea. Monday he put out a notice that he was appearing on local talk radio to talk about “our Cape Cod killer shark problem.”

In his initial statement, Beaty said he issued the proposal based upon the “sharp increase in shark related attacks and incidents around Cape Cod in recent years,” which poses a “clear and present danger to human life.” He cautioned that “all appropriate federal and state permissions and official protocols must first be sought” before his proposal is implemented. The plan “entails the use of baited drum lines being deployed near popular beaches using hooks designed to catch great white sharks,” according to his statement. “Large sharks found hooked but still alive are shot and their bodies discarded at sea.”

There is so much wrong with this that it's hard to know where to begin. The great white shark is a protected species and is classified as vulnerable. Two years ago, Massachusetts banned catching, cage diving, feeding, towing decoys, or baiting and chumming for great white sharks, specifically because the population that frequent our waters in the summer is the only predictable congregation of white sharks in the North Atlantic. No one knows how many white sharks are in North Atlantic waters, or off the coast of Cape Cod at any one time. Indeed, getting a handle on those numbers is the main purpose of Skomal's five-year population study, which has seen the tagging of more than 100 sharks and the identification of more than 250 individuals.

Why would we want to decimate the population that we know so little about?

It's true that there has been more high profile shark activity in the past several years; sharks have attacked kayaks and, just last week, a Chatham man's paddle board off Wellfleet. Sharks have also gone after seals in highly visible locations: off crowded Nauset Beach last week and in the middle of Chatham Harbor a few weeks ago. And many local officials – and this newspaper – have worried that it is just a matter of time before a swimmer or surfer is severely injured or killed by a great white shark in Cape Cod waters.

However, Beaty's proposal is naïve and unduly inflammatory. He apparently isn't aware that there's been a group of officials from area towns who have been working on this problem for a number of years now. They've developed shark safety information and have looked at early warning systems to provide beach managers with the tools to keep swimmers safe. The information includes warning flags, signs, videos and brochures, as well as pilot programs to determine if balloons with video cameras can serve as an early warning system. With state government unwilling to throw money at the situation – Skomal's work, and much of that of the working group, has been funded by the private Conservancy – these are the best approaches available. We doubt county government would be willing to open its wallet; indeed, Barnstable County Commission Chairman Leo Cakounes announced that Beaty's shark culling proposal has not, nor will it, be placed on the commission's agenda.

A lot of this comes down to education and plain common sense. Don't swim when seals are nearby. Don't swim at dawn or dusk. Never swim alone. These and other tips are posted on town websites, at beaches and in public buildings throughout the area.

Perhaps Beaty should have started with the working group before putting out his plan to the public.

Some areas do cull sharks. But the research appears to show mixed results. According to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a culling program was terminated in Western Australia after no evidence was found that it made beaches safer. How could it? Even if beaches are ringed with baited drum lines to intercept every shark near popular beaches, it's possible that a lone shark and a lone swimmer will intersect somewhere along the miles and miles of Cape shoreline that is the apex predator's habitat. Practicality dictates that drum lines couldn't be placed along the entire Cape shore; they certainly would not survive the bar that stretches across the entrance to Chatham Harbor.

Such a system could also create a false sense of security at beaches, or could attract sharks to places they might not otherwise be. Would they also attract seals? Then you're back in the same situation we have today.

The presence of sharks, the Conservancy says, indicates a healthy ecosystem. More to the point, it indicates a healthy population of seals. As long as the seals are here, there will be sharks. Perhaps Beaty is targeting the wrong species. He'd elicit a lot more support with a seal population control plan.

Perhaps the best rebuke of Beaty's proposal we've seen came from 12-year-old Lucy Swain of Harwich, a member of the Conservancy's Gills Club, which promotes science and shark ecology among young girls. Along with running down statistics of how rare shark attacks on humans are – falling coconuts kill more people than sharks – she wrote that killing off sharks will allow the seal population to grow uncontrolled and further impact fish populations and our commercial fishing fleet. “The whole local ocean ecosystem would be ruined, all because people are not educated enough about sharks and the ocean,” she wrote.

A responsible news media never should have taken seriously this proposal by an official who is frankly an embarrassment to Cape Cod. Sharks are sexy; they sell and get hits online – we understand that – but a line needs to be drawn somewhere. And it shouldn't be a drum line of baited hooks.