Photo by George Despiris
Americas / Cape Cod

Sharks, Seals, and Fishermen: The Return of the Apex Predator

It all began in 1972 when the federal government passed the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) for the purpose of protecting certain marine mammals in the United States. Before the MMPA, seals were virtually extinct in the waters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Now, it is estimated that the seal population exceeds 40,000, showing no signs of slowing down. This exponential growth in local seal populations has come with unintended consequences for the fishing and tourism industries, which serve as the foundations of Cape Cod’s economy.

The fishing industry is a consistent victim to the activities of Cape Cod’s seal population. The necessary intake for a standard seal (neither pregnant nor growing) is 4,000 calories. This caloric budget is distributed amongst 40,000 individuals. It is hard to estimate what 160,000,000 calories worth of fish looks like–but it is clearly a lot. The competition between fishermen and seals has not gone unnoticed by locals. On a larger scale, fishery managers have been forced to reevaluate quotas, concerning the impact such population surges have had on the relationship between the economy and environment.

While this problem stands out to a lot of Cape Cod locals, there are extensive limitations on methods available to address this situation. Because of the MMPA, government prohibitions are placed on most accessible forms of population limitation. Additionally, scientists have been fearful of how reverting to methods of restriction will impact the flourishing ecosystem. Seals, in many ways, are a success story–the local population went from near extinction to healthy and growing over the course of only a few decades. The people’s concerns, however, are not confined to seals and fish–they have come to represent a greater fear of the ecosystem’s apex predator: Great White Sharks.

It was September 18th when Arthur Medici was fatally attacked in the waters off of Wellfleet, Cape Cod. His death marked Massachusetts’ first fatal shark attack since 1936, further identified as the sole death-by-shark in the US for 2018. This attack is symbolic of the fact that, over the past handful of decades, Cape Cod has become a hotspot for shark activity. Each summer, news outlets flood with pictures taken from spotter planes of sharks swimming dangerously close to paddle boarders and footage of sharks biting GoPros. It has become increasingly clear that shark activity is more pronounced now than it has been for decades.

The roots of this issue go back to 1972 and the beginning of seal protection. While the migration of Great White Sharks to regions further north can be linked to rising ocean temperatures, the increase in food sources provides incentive for new territorial infiltration. In the case of Cape Cod, Great Whites face little competition for food, and the ratio of seals to sharks remains exorbitant. As seal numbers continue to reach new heights, it is hard to imagine the new shark populations will not follow the same path. There is, indeed, plenty of food to go around.

While shark numbers are still relatively low, any form of shark activity is, unfortunately, a negative addition to Cape Cod’s reputation. Seals and sharks single-handedly have the capacity to alter the social, economic, and environmental systems that compose the outer Cape. The concerns of radical changes to such systems are important to the conservation of a healthy living environment for all residents, whether they be human or animal.

The death of Arthur Medici turned a tragic event into the fuel for various social and political debates. September 2018 marked a movement away from the concerns of conservation to a widespread impression that seals are provoking new forms of danger by attracting sharks. In a forum for shark safety, held in Wellfleet days after the attack, local resident Gail Sluis argued, “this was a beautiful young man who lost his life because we’ve been sitting here doing nothing… and no sharks or seals are worth a young man’s life, they’re just not.”

The remarks made by Ms. Sluis are representative of a greater popular opinion within the community. The success story of Cape Cod’s ecological systems is, unfortunately, not the primary concern for most. The threat sharks are imposing cause a fear of instability–both social and economic. Cape Cod is composed of an aging population. With limited space for expansive industry and manufacturing, there is little draw for the settlement of youth. Because of this, economic security is dependent upon the business done in summer months, when vacationers become consumers for all local goods. In the short span between May and September, livelihoods are determined.

So what happens if sharks begin to scare tourists away? Will the local residents have a chance to earn a living, or will there be newfound hardships? This question is too great to be narrowed down this specific case study–it is a critique on how humans interact with the environment.

The introduction of sharks back into the Cape Cod ecosystem can be an indicator of healthy growth and recovery after a long history of nature facing the possibility of destitution.  In a way, the goal of the MMPA has been achieved–populations have reverted back to a healthy state, and the ecosystem’s development is proof of that. Is it our place to revert the progress made, to potentially damage the environment for future generations? It is not an easy question to consider, weighing the significance of human life and livelihood against nature, but it is exactly what this situation is asking of us.

For as long as I can remember, my siblings and I have called Cape Cod home for the summer months. As a child, I played in the warm sands and splashed around in the shallows of the same beach Arthur Medici was killed at. As we got older, our parents became concerned that our wetsuits resembled the sharks favored meal, and friends told us to take off jewelry that could reflect the sun, making our wrist seem like fish scales. We joked around for years about wanting to see a fin, or about how jealous we were when sightings were reported at nearby beaches. We made light of the situation, we splashed and kicked, we swam out a little too far. In the end, it came down to one thing – we got lucky. I don’t believe that luck should be taken for granted, and I also know it won’t stop me from swimming. At the end of the day, the ocean is their home, not ours. Who gave us the right to decide how they get to live in it?