In the 1975 film classic “Jaws,” a massive great white shark causes panic in a fictional New England beach town. Today, real-life coastal residents on Cape Cod are dealing with a similar, if less cinematic, problem.
Last August, a 61-year-old swimmer was attacked and narrowly survived. Then in September the same year, a 26-year-old man died after being bitten while boogie boarding. It was the first fatal shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936.
Many people are putting the blame on seals, that draw them close to the shore. Gray seal populations were nearly eliminated by hunting through most of the 20th century, but federal protections passed in 1972 have allowed their numbers to proliferate. Today there are an estimated 50,000 seals around Cape Cod.
“What we’re witnessing is a comeback to a really healthy marine environment,” said Kimberly Murray, seal program lead at NOAA Fisheries in Woods Hole.
Proponents of seal culling say it is the most effective and efficient way to reduce the number of sharks in Cape Cod’s waters. Businesses that rely on tourism are suffering because the attacks are scaring off summer visitors, they argue. Others say the seals have become so numerous that they’re creating problems beyond just attracting sharks, such as stealing fish from fishermen and creating an unpleasant odor on beaches.
Environmentalists argue that killing thousands of seals to protect humans is cruel, given how rare fatal shark attacks are. Some scientists believe a cull would be ineffective because any seals killed on Cape Cod would soon be replaced by seals from another area.
Still others say the debate on the issue is pointless, since federal law prohibits killing the seals.