great white shark
Cape Cod saw multiple shark sightings this week, prompting a proposal for mitigation by a local politician. Photo: Elias Levy/Flickr Creative Commons

Every summer, it seems those who flock to the Cape and Islands have flashbacks to the fictional New England beach thriller "Jaws."

 

There were already a few great white shark sightings this year, most recently off of Scituate on Massachusetts’ South Shore and near Cape Cod’s Wellfleet back in May.

 

Scientists are expecting about 150 great whites in the water around Cape Cod this summer. But is that a “boom” worthy of inciting a shark scare in beachgoers?

 

Not quite, says Gregory Skomal, a senior scientist with Massachusetts Marine Fisheries.

 

“We’re not predicting a white shark boom this summer. We’re predicting numbers consistent with previous years,” he said.

Last year’s data identified 147 sharks off of the Cape coast, and Skomal said his department doesn’t “anticipate that changing dramatically this year.”

It is an increase from the 2014 data, though, which saw about 80 sharks in the Cape area.

“We only started monitoring the white shark population, in terms of measuring it, since 2014. So three years of data under the belt do not create a significant trend,” Skomal said. “Yeah, there was a subtle increase over the last three years, but I don’t expect that to change appreciably.”

Skomal said that the driving factor behind that increase is the growing seal population, which is good news.

The seal population on the northeast coast has been precarious in the past. Hunting programs quelled the population for decades, Skomal said, and it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the United States government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act that afforded marine life like seals and whales some protection.

Though the restoration of the population has been slow, it has grown over the last 45 years, and seals have recolonized the areas where they once flourished.

“Cape Cod has a high density of seals now,” Skomal said. “It’s certainly characterized as a conservation success story … and as a result, white sharks, which are predators of seals, have responded in kind and are coming to the shore.”

The same great whites have also been returning to the Cape, Skomal said. Last year, about 40 percent of the sharks spotted in 2015 returned to the shores of the popular summer destination.

Massachusetts Marine Fisheries works closely with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, and both organizations are asking that if you do happen to see a real-life Jaws while on your Cape vacation, you report it. About six great whites have already been spotted this year, Skomal said. 

An app called “Sharktivity” was developed that anyone can use to share the sightings.

“If you’re on a boat or on the beach, take a photo, or videos are great, and send it to our agency,” Skomal said. “We’re interested in where you saw it. … We can determine what species it is and we can take advantage of that [sighting].”