Cape Cod Voters Are Not Quite There Yet with Shark Barriers

Monday, May 20, 2019

Voters in the idyllic Cape Cod town of Chatham rejected a proposal at their latest Town Meeting to spend $100,000 on a proposal to study and build a shark barrier at a beach where little kids are taught to swim.

That is unlikely to be the last vote on Cape Cod in response to two nightmarish shark attacks on human beings, one of them fatal, last year in the waters near Chatham, which are teeming with seals and the Great White Sharks that feed upon them.

There are now estimated to be upwards of 40,000 Grey Seals and Harbor Seals residing on Monomoy Island, the long, narrow appendage of sand hanging from the elbow of Cape Cod.  Monomoy's seal colony is now so large it can be seen from space.

Once hunted to the brink of extinction, seals have made a dramatic comeback in Massachusetts waters, thanks to the federal Marine Mammals Protection Act, which makes it a crime to harass, harm or kill them. 

Not surprisingly, some folks on Cape Cod, including commercial fishermen concerned by how much fish that myriad of seals consumes, are saying those protections should be lifted, that it's time to cull seals the way deer and other animals are culled on land, i.e., for the greater good.

I did a little research and found that the average male Grey Seal weighs approximately 880 pounds and requires 35 to 52 pounds of food every day.  His diet consists mainly of fish, crustaceans, squid and octopuses.

From those figures, I made a quick calculation.  I set the average daily weight of live food eaten by a Grey Seal at 43.5 pounds and multiplied that by 40,000, coming up with an estimate of 1.74 million pounds of fish and other marine delicacies that go down the throats of those Monomoy seals every day.  Multiplying that by the days in a year, 365, I got slightly over 635 million pounds, the rough amount of food those seals are eating on an annual  basis!  No wonder fishermen on the Cape are ticked.  

I don't think a majority of the population on Cape Cod would support the kind of slaughter required to make a serious dent in the local seal population, regardless of whether it was motivated by a desire to protect the fishery or to reduce the number of sharks that prey on seals and pose a danger to persons in the water. 

Seals are fascinating and lovable-looking creatures.  Like us, they are living, breathing, feeling and breeding mammals.  Their suffering at the hands of hunters would be significant, not to mention heart-wrenching for those who witnessed it on TV and other media.

But the day may come -- after more swimmers and surfers on the Cape are injured or killed by Great Whites, after fish populations are decimated, after beaches are closed due to bacteria from seal excrement -- when the federal government allows the seals of Monomoy to be hunted and killed in large numbers.

My family and I have vacationed on Cape Cod for decades, mainly in Harwich, next door to Chatham.  We have swum frequently in beaches not far from Monomoy, as the seagull flies, such as Harding's Beach and Ridgevale Beach in Chatham. Until now, I have never worried about being bitten by a shark.  When my children were little and asked about sharks, I would tell them I had been swimming in the ocean since I was a kid and had never seen or felt a shark.  "It's a big ocean.  They don't care about us," I would say.

Then, last summer, I saw a video taken early one morning by a woman walking a beach in Dennis, just a few miles from where I like to take an early-morning swim at Red River Beach in Harwich.  Recorded on a smart phone, the video showed a Great White swimming slowly, parallel to the shore, no more than eight feet from dry land.

And, last week,  I happened to read an article in Boston Magazine by Casey Sherman, "The Shark Attack That Changed Cape Cod Forever."  It quoted the marine explorer, Barry Clifford, who knows the waters of Cape Cod better than all but a few human beings.  He said:

"Right now, I would never dream of swimming off the Cape or allow my children or grandchildren to swim there."


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