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As shark sightings rise, researchers are better understanding species

Increased great white shark research is being done ahead of a busy tourist season along the East Coast.
As shark sightings rise, researchers are better understanding species
Posted at 5:36 PM, Aug 15, 2023

The middle of August marks the beginning of the end of summer for most Americans. But the tranquility lapping the shores of Cape Cod this time of year marks the start of shark season, in an area currently seeing more great white sharks than any other place in the world. 

As a recent college grad with an ecology degree, Luke Nelson floated into perhaps the perfect summer job: The 22-year-old is spending his entire summer off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts, working for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

On a recent Wednesday morning, Scripps News got on board with Nelson and headed out to see just what is swimming beneath the surface.

"It's incredible to be where this intense predator-prey interaction is happening," Nelson said as he looked out over the waters of Cape Cod.

After journeying by boat into Chatham's Inner Harbor, Nelson pulled a yellow buoy on board the boat. He then inserted a transmission device into the buoy, which transmitted data to an iPad-like device to see if any sharks have swam by recently.

"What I like to say to people is when you get in the water in New England, there could be a shark nearby," Nelson said.

There are now hundreds of buoys like the one Nelson was checking across the East Coast. 

The transmission device researchers will tag sharks with is constantly emitting sound waves. If a shark swims within 500 meters of a buoy, the activity is picked up then recorded.

"We need to understand how we can coexist with wildlife. That comes with any wildlife, no matter where you are," said Maddie Poirier, a community educator at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

According to a recently released report in the Marine Ecology Progress Series, Cape Cod is one of the largest white shark hotspots in the world right now. Between 2015 and 2018, about 800 white sharks visited the waters off of Cape Cod.

So, why are sharks flocking to the Cape Cod area?

SEE MORE: With all the recent shark activity, should you stay out of the water?

Scientists say warmer water fueled by climate change is part of the reason, but a resurgence in the seal population is also drawing more sharks in.

In 1972, Congress signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which made it illegal to hunt seals. Then, in 1997, it became illegal to catch sharks within 200 nautical miles off the shore. In 2005, the state of Massachusetts made it illegal to capture white sharks.

As the seal population has rebounded, great white sharks have followed.

"Data that once took us years to collect on sharks, we can now get that almost instantly," said John Chisholm, an adjunct scientist with the New England Aquarium.

Chisholm helps maintain a phone app called "Sharktivity." The app has become a staple for beachgoers up and down the East Coast in recent years. It tracks shark sightings and buoy detections across the East Coast in real time and sends users shark push alerts to their phones, letting them know swimming at a certain beach is off-limits.

This year alone the app has had 750,000 downloads.

"A lot of people weren't aware the sharks were this close to the beach," Chisholm said.

All of this technology is giving researchers a better idea of just how many sharks may be out there and what their habits are, which helps to create better public awareness and public safety plans. That's especially true when 5.23 million tourists flock to Cape Cod's shores each summer

"It's a data point. It's citizen science, as we like to call it," Chisholm said. "We get so many of those we can see patterns of where and when they occur, and then we have a better idea of where these sharks are spending their time."

Aside from the scientific opportunity the sharks bring with them, they're also creating a whole new kind of eco-tourism. People are now coming to Cape Cod to see sharks and learn more about them.

"This isn't the man-eating monster 'Jaws' painted it out to be, and we don't have to fear it all the time," Poirier said.

As the end of the summer season sits just off the horizon, shark season is coming firmly into focus for researchers across the Cape.

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