BOSTON - Ahead of another influx of tourists that comes with summer on Cape Cod, state officials are showering six outer Cape towns with public safety funds following increased shark sightings and a deadly attack last September.
The Executive Office of Public Safety announced Tuesday that $383,000 was being allocated to help buy emergency call boxes in areas where cell service is limited, satellite phones for lifeguards, and all-terrain vehicles that can more quickly reach patients on the beach with specialized medical equipment.
In a press release that didn't mention the word "shark," officials said the funds were for "municipal preparedness and response programs." Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro said called it a "good first step" coming ahead of summer and Rep. Sarah Peake of Provincetown said the funding arrived with "lightning speed."
"Our administration is pleased to provide funds to address critical infrastructure equipment needs as it relates to the safety of all Massachusetts residents and visitors," Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said in a statement. "We are grateful to our partners at the local level and in the Legislature for continuing to work together with us to address this important issue."
Arthur Medici, 26, was killed by a great white shark while boogie boarding last September along a stretch of Cape Cod that's been a tourist destination for decades, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each summer. It was the first fatal shark attack since 1936. State officials responded to the late-summer attack off Wellfleet by encouraging beachgoers to follow posted warnings and stay in shallow water. Since then, talks about public safety have picked up.
The state granted the funds to six Cape communities with beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean: Truro, Eastham, Wellfleet, Chatham, Orleans and Provincetown.
Polito called Peake at 7:45 a.m. Monday while the representative was driving to Boston and told her the $383,000 request made during private meetings was being granted, Peake said. "It was thrilling," she said, touting results from meetings that Peake and Cyr convened with stakeholders about six weeks ago.
But Peake added, "This is not the end of the story. There's more to be done."
The Woods Hole Group is researching myriad shark detection and monitoring possibilities. Looking ahead to this month's House budget debate, Peake said she will seek additional Division of Marine Fisheries funding to continue white shark research as well as funding for the Provincetown-based Center for Coastal Studies, which is conducting a bottom mapping effort to better identify where sharks are being spotted with greater frequency.
Peake said the proverbial three legs on the stool in this instance are science, emergency response and communication.
"We want to be as informative as possible so people can have a safe, fun time at the beach," she said.
Pointing to other natural habitats that attract people, the Provincetown Democrat noted that behavior modification may be necessary. People visiting Yellowstone Park would not handfeed a bear, she noted, and those hiking in the Southwest would be alert for rattlesnakes.
She said the outer Cape beaches will feature signage and hotels on the Cape will disseminate information.
A meeting is planned on Friday with the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce to talk about "messaging," Peake said. Cyr plans to attend the meeting in Hyannis.
"What we've learned is speaking with one voice," he said. "We all need to be sharing the same message and we need to be communicating, just like any work in risk communication."
Cyr said the funds are needed now. "This is going to provide a really critical investment in public safety and response in advance of the upcoming summer season," he told the News Service. He said a working group that's been discussing the issue for years ramped up its work after last September's attack.
While the public safety funds will boost emergency response, Cyr cautioned, "This is going to be an ongoing risk. There's nothing we can do to sort of guarantee no risk in the Atlantic-facing beaches," whether it be risks posed by sharks or drowning, he said.
"The number of white sharks has been rising off the coast of Cape Cod over the last few years, which has created research opportunities as well as significant challenges," Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC) President and CEO Cynthia Wigren said in an advisory touting an upcoming lecture on the subject. She added, "There are a number of municipalities looking for ways to reduce negative interactions between white sharks and beachgoers."
Dr. Greg Skomal, a shark expert and senior biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, is the featured speaker at an April 26 AWSC talk, "Living with White Sharks," to be held at 6:30 p.m. at District Hall in Boston. Skomal plans to talk about what's driving the increased presence of sharks.
Skomal told the News Service Wednesday that estimating the size of the white shark population "has been our focus for the last several years, but our analyses are not yet completed." During studies to date, researchers have cataloged more than 320 individual sharks, according to Skomal, who added that "it also appears the number of white sharks along our coast is increasing in recent years."
The conservancy describes its mission as supporting the scientific study of white sharks and using research results to educate the public and elected officials in order to conserve sharks while improving public safety. Toward that end, the group recently hired Megan Winton, a fisheries biologist with more than ten years of research experience, as its staff scientist.
Winton is a Ph.D. candidate at the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where she has focused her research on statistical methods to improve understanding of white shark and loggerhead sea turtle populations in the northwest Atlantic. She previously worked at several research institutions, including Coonamessett Farm Foundation and NOAA Fisheries' Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
Tickets for the conservancy lecture are $25 and members of the media may attend for free.
State House News Service