Researchers Wrapping Up Data Collection for 5-Year White Shark Study

A Day on the Water with Dr. Greg Skomal & The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

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One of the many Atlantic White Sharks observed & studied on our trip.

HYANNIS – The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and lead researcher Dr. Greg Skomal are heading into the final few weeks of their five-year population study.

The CapeCod.com NewsCenter caught up with Skomal on their research boat in October during one of their final trips.

He talked about the past five years, what they’ve learned, what they plan to do with the data and what’s next for their research.

When the project began, no one could have guessed how the shark population would explode off Cape Cod’s coastline.

“The numbers that we’ve seen over the years and how that is changing fairly dramatically surprises me,” Skomal said.

For half a decade, Skomal has been out on the waters every week in the summer, cataloging and tagging great white sharks.

The research team has cataloged over 350 white sharks over the first four years of the study and Skomal thinks that total will be exceeded after the data from 2018 is analyzed.

Scientists are also studying the demographics of the sharks. They are seeing a roughly equal split among males and females.

“We are seeing not only mature adults of both sexes but also some sub-adults – think of them as teenagers – and some juveniles,” Skomal said.

Skomal said he is surprised at the number of juveniles being seen in local waters.

“We typically think of juveniles as not being capable of attacking and killing seals and they seem to be doing quite well,” he said.

Although a lot of time is spent out on the water collecting data during the summer, a majority of the work during the population study is done when the sharks move away from Cape Cod.

“I’m very much looking forward to the next several months when we are going to actually start generating population size numbers, which I think the public and beach managers will be very interested in,” Skomal said.

Beach managers will be interested in the data due to recent tragedy.

Arthur Medici, 26, of Revere, died from injuries suffered during an attack last month at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet. It was the first fatal shark attack in Massachusetts waters since 1936.

A New York man was also bitten by a great white shark in Truro in August and survived his injuries. That attack was the first on Cape Cod since 2012, which was also in Truro.

Skomal said he is deeply saddened by what happened this summer.

“I hate to see anybody get hurt and the fatal attack is absolutely tragic,” he said. “But when you get the overlap between user groups, people and these sharks and their prey – the seals – certainly, the potential of this exists and that is not a good thing,” Skomal said.

Skomal said the goal moving forward will be to mitigate those impacts through public education and other measurers.

“Critically important is better communication, particularly on the Outer Cape towns,” he said.

Immediate access to medical care is also something Skomal is advocating.

“We have to do everything we possibly can to prevent them and unfortunately there is no silver bullet here,” Skomal said.

Other areas of the world have been working to limit to interactions with humans and sharks, but Skomal said there is no easy solution.

“In the near-term we can’t change their behavior. All we can do is change ours,” he said. “There’s some folks out there who just don’t want to change their behavior, and I understand that, but they have to also expect the fact that there is a risk that comes with not changing your behavior.”

Skomal said the distribution of the sharks have changed since the beginning of the population study. There are still big numbers off Monomoy, Chatham and Orleans, but the shark presence has shifted a bit northward.

“All the way up to Provincetown now we see them routinely,” Skomal said. “This year, as well as last summer in 2017, we had a number of reports of white sharks throughout Cape Cod Bay.

The shift has caused researchers to expand the receiver coverage to detect tagged sharks.

“The white sharks appeared to have expanded as their population numbers have gone up and their abundance has gone up,” Skomal said. “And we would expect that because there is competition that increases and they tend to spread out.”

Skomal does believe there is a direct correlation between the number of seals and the number of sharks. The white sharks numbers off the Cape have increased as the seal population has boomed off the coast.

“That’s been demonstrated in other parts of the world where seal populations have been protected and have come back,” he said. “I do think it’s a simple cause and effect.”

Skomal also said that the public should also know that sharks do not just eat seals and also feed on several species of fish.

“A lot of charter captains, particularly in Cape Cod Bay, have seen the sharks eating striped bass – right off their lines in some cases,” Skomal said.

Over the course of the five-year study researchers have collected tens of thousands of data points.

“We try to keep up with it each year and we have done fairly well for the first few years, but over the course of the next 12 months we are going to be really crunching it,” Skomal said.

There is already a series of scientific papers in development.

“We see at least five different peer reviewed papers coming out of it,” he said.

Skomal said it is also important to get the information out to the public through media outlets and town officials.

“We want to share this information as we crunch it so that there is no surprises,” he said.

Along the way, Skomal’s become known as one of the foremost authority on white shark issues and have even gained a level of notoriety and celebrity, appearing in 2017 as the celebrity guest conductor for the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod’s annual Pops By the Sea Concert.

“I never expected that. I don’t really think of it as being that,” he said. “I’m out there trying to do my job and I’m enjoying it and if people see me as that then that’s great, but I’m just a normal guy.”

By BRIAN MERCHANT, CapeCod.com NewsCenter

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