Beachgoers in the US have real-life Jaws to fear

Something scary this way swims.
Something scary this way swims.
Image: Reuters
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Ever since the 1975 blockbuster film Jaws, people have been terrified of great white sharks. This fear is often without much reason, as few US beachgoers were likely to encounter one of these predators.

That is changing, however. Last month, researchers thought they spotted a great white shark off of Long Island Sound in New York (paywall). In Florida, scientists recently spotted two great whites in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The return of great white sharks, due in large part to conservation efforts, is prompting scientists to focus on ways humans and sharks can better live—if not swim—side by side.

As Boston Magazine reported on May 14, these predators are on the rebound near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and beach towns are struggling to contend with the problem. Last September, a surfer—Arthur Medici, a 26-year-old from Brazil—was fatally attacked by a great white. His death came just a few weeks after 61-year-old swimmer William Lytton was bitten by a shark in the same waters. Lytton was in a coma for two days but lived to tell the tale of his great white encounter. In 2017, a great white in the same area bit a paddleboarder but the boarder wasn’t hurt, while in 2014, a great white chomped on two kayaks, leaving the kayakers traumatized but uninjured.

The region seems to be teeming with sharks. And indeed, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has spotted hundreds of these predators swimming nearer than ever to local beaches in recent years. This is both bad news and good news, says Thomas Grothues of the department of marine and coastal sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

First, the good news. The region was historically a natural habitat for great white sharks and they are being drawn back to the growing number of gray seals in the region, now on the rebound after years of being hunted down in bounty programs. Their return can be attributed to human efforts to conserve sea life that we nearly wiped out, a positive sign that conservation is undoing the damage people did before.

On the west coast of the US, sea lion populations are also on the uptick, which is attracting more predators close to beaches there, Grothues says. Sharks were also aggressively targeted by humans in the past. But now that there are protections in place for all these marine creatures, their populations are growing and becoming more visible.

Now, the bad news. More marine life can also mean an increase in risk for people. As sharks increasingly swim closer to shore in waters that humans enjoy, the danger to beachgoers is growing. Still, Grothues says, “It’s important to keep this in perspective. Sharks are not very often going to be successful at getting a meal out of a human.”

Grothues explains that most young sharks don’t want to eat people. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to, as their teeth are better suited to holding fish. As great whites get older and develop those terrifying saw-like teeth that can chomp through us like so much meat, they are more of a threat to humans, but we are still not their ideal meal. People are not as fatty or as nourishing as seals or sea lions. To the extent that humans get bitten by great whites, it’s not because they nutritious or delicious. It’s more likely because a person was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Marine biologists are increasingly finding that sea creatures each have distinct personalities as well, Grothues notes. It’s possible then, he contends, that the shark that attacked and killed Medici last year was a bad apple, as it were.

Grothues doesn’t dismiss the dangers to humans of sharks. But he argues that the more we know about their behaviors and patterns, the safer it will be for people to keep enjoying beaches. Tagging and counting creatures won’t save human lives, but knowing where and how great whites move, and when they feed, does show us what we truly have to fear and how to avoid deadly encounters. Studying sharks is a good start in helping humans to devise better systems to stay safe while protecting sharks at the same time.

Our growing awareness of their presence through scientific efforts also means we’re more attuned to the fact that they are nearby, he says, but “we can concentrate resources more effectively when we understand the sharks’ behavior better,” Grothues argues.

In Cape Cod, for example, municipalities are this summer funding the addition of phones on beaches in places where cell phone receptivity is limited to make it easier to report sightings and warn beachgoers in the region if a predator is seen swimming close by. Beaches are also being supplied with more sophisticated first aid kits to immediately treat potential shark bites.

Grothues suggests that crowd-sourced drone photography is another way to approach the problem. Arguably, programs could be set up for the public to help track and report great whites and other dangerous predators using drones. Like adding phones to beaches, this would make it easier to report sightings and warn beachgoers. Grothues notes too that in Brazil and Australia researchers have experimented with creating barriers in the ocean that keep dangerous predators from approaching beaches. These can be somewhat effective, but also endanger sea turtles and other creatures who can get caught up in nets.

One thing is certain: Going back to the days when people shot at sharks from boats, as they did in the early to mid-20th century, is not the solution—although one Cape Cod politician briefly suggested as much. Grothues has heard tales from older marine scientists about the bounty hunting that depleted animal populations and forced the need for conservation, and they are gruesome.

“It’s not just an emotional response,” Grothues explains, saying that he doesn’t feel personally attached to sharks necessarily. He does, however, appreciate what they do, and warns that we need these creatures even if they do rightly terrify us. “They are an important part of the ecosystem. Where there is risk to humans, we need to address that graciously. But we do need to save great white sharks.”