With sharks on the move, Cape Cod communities ponder how to alert swimmers

A white shark at right swims close to a pack of gray seals in shallow waters off Lighthouse Beach in Chatham, Massachusetts, U.S., in this undated photo provided to the media on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. The great white sharks swimming off the waters of Chatham are boosting its economy by luring more tourists; now the town is wondering whether being so popular will have a bite. Source: Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries via Bloomberg EDITOR'S NOTE: NO SALES. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. localsharks
A great white shark swam close to a pack of gray seals in shallow waters off Lighthouse Beach in Chatham in June 2011.
Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries

Officials from communities on Cape Cod are focusing on ways to better share information about the presence of sharks, as sightings of the predators have risen in the past few years.

Christopher Myers, of Denver, is wheeled into a media availability at Massachusetts General Hospital upon his discharge after receiving treatment as the result of a shark attack in Boston, Friday, Aug. 3, 2012. Myers was bitten off Ballston Beach in Truro on Monday. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Christopher Myers of Denver was the first victim of a great white shark attack since 1936.
Stephan Savoia/AP

“There was a lot of concern about how to better communicate the whereabouts of sharks, what we can do better in that aspect than in previous years,’’ said Dan Tobin, the director of the Chatham Parks and Recreation Department, after a two-hour meeting Wednesday in Orleans with other town officials, shark experts, and the public.

After a very active shark season that included the state’s first great white shark attack since 1936, the Cape and Islands Harbormasters Association hosted the discussion to evaluate the summer’s events and plan for next year. The “Regional White Shark Discussion” was held at the Orleans Town Hall. About 75 people attended.

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Tobin said communication is essential to safeguarding beachgoers. Public alerts can be made through the news media, e-mails, and possibly social networking, he said.

Orleans Harbormaster Dawson Farber said the next step is to form a working group of perhaps two officials from each community to come up with a communication system to rapidly share information on shark sightings and alert the public.

“The fact is, these animals are here to stay, so towns have to figure out a way to deal with them in the most effective way possible,’’ Farber said. “We have to look at it on a regionwide basis, and have a central mechanism by which we can get the word out in case of a sighting. Part of the communication would be getting out to folks that this is the Atlantic and there are sharks in the water and no such thing as 100 percent safety. There is an inherent risk but people shouldn’t feel they can never go into the water.”

Chris Myers, 50, who was bitten in July off the shores of Ballston Beach in Truro, was the first person attacked by a great white shark in Massachusetts waters since 1936, when a teenager was killed.

Myers grew up in Boston but now lives in Colorado. Days after the attack, he said he did not know that seals were in the area, and he was not aware that there had been great white shark sightings near Truro. If he had known, he would not have gone swimming, he said.

With burgeoning seal populations in New England — many of them calling the warm waters off Chatham’s Monomoy Island home — sharks have followed. Marine biologist Greg Skomal, a senior fisheries expert with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, has been researching shark movements since 2009 and says they appear to have taken a liking to waters just south of Orleans.

Skomal has tagged 34 sharks since 2009, and has been tracking their movements.

Typically, prior to 2004, there were zero to three shark sightings a year in the region, but since then, the numbers have increased. In 2004 there were about five. In 2009, there were about a dozen sightings, and in 2010 there were about 20. He did not have statistics for 2011 and this year available, but the media has reported on numerous sightings both those years. Skomal noted, though, that statistics on shark sightings can be misleading because a single shark may be counted multiple times.

“The purpose of the meeting was for towns to be proactive, to flush out the issues they need to confront with regard to these animals. We’re at very high seal levels and I don’t know if that will continue and whether it will result in more sharks being in the area, but that appears to be happening,’’ Skomal said.