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August 2, 2013
Article

Great Whites hold key place in ecosystem

Without the predator, other species would explode

by Wanda Curtis

Tagging a shark.
Tagging a shark. COURTESY OCEARCH

MAINE — They're here.

Lobstermen off Boothbay Harbor on July 30 watched and filmed what they believe was a Great White Shark feeding on a minke whale carcass. Later in the week, a visitor to Wells Beach reported seeing a shark near the shore of the popular swimming area.

Whether it's the warmer waters or something else, it's no surprise to researchers that the large predator sharks like the Great White are in the Gulf of Maine, at least during the warmer months.

For the past few years, Great Whites have been sighted off Cape Cod beaches, and last year a man swimming 400 feet off a National Seashore beach in Truro was bitten by the giant shark. Last summer a photograph of a kayaker seemingly being stalked by a Great White along the Cape shore was widely published.

Not surprisingly, tourism rates there temporarily plummeted.

Tourism is Cape Cod's leading industry, with visitors spending $850 million there in 2011. Visitation rebounded, though, and no long-term economic effects have been felt. In fact, shops that sold shark T-shirts and toys reported a huge boost in sales this year. Sea tour businesses also have experienced a surge and some predict the Cape will become a center for ecotours.

Florida shark biologist George Burgess, who directs the International Shark Attack File (sharkattackfile.net), said in 2012 there were seven fatal Great White attacks worldwide but that most such attacks aren't fatal. Great Whites usually attack their prey and then back off, perhaps as a defensive mechanism, allowing the prey to bleed and weaken before returning to finish off the kill. During that lag time many humans are able to escape, he said.

Burgess predicts Great White attacks will continue to increase because their numbers along the New England coast are growing and because more people are engaging in aquatic sports where sharks and their normal prey, such as seals, live. Burgess reviewed the video off Boothbay Harbor and said the shark could very well be a Great White.

Legislation protecting marine mammals has permitted an increased number of seals to colonize along the coast, said Burgess. In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibits the killing, capture, or harassment of whales, dolphins, polar bears, manatees, seals and similar creatures, some of which had become nearly extinct due to commercial hunting and other human activities. Experts now estimate there are 15,000 grey seals in Massachusetts— a lot of food for Great White, which also feed on dolphins, squid and other sharks.

Burgess advises people to evacuate the water if they see seals. The presence of seal colonies is a good indication sharks are nearby. He also recommends that people avoid drop off points and sand dunes where sharks and seals tend to congregate.  He advises swimmers, surfers and divers to travel in groups because sharks may be more likely to attack lone individuals.

More tips for avoiding shark attacks are available at sharkattackfile.net/recommendations.

LION OF THE OCEAN

Chris Fischer, the founder of OCEARCH, has blazed the trail for Great White research. He said that while shark sightings off Cape Cod have evoked fear among some tourists and residents, the return of the Great White is actually a good sign. He said 73 million sharks are killed each year for fin soup, a delicacy in Asian countries. Shark fins sell for $20 to $30 per pound off the boat in the U.S. Great White fins are most in demand.

"The white shark is the lion of the ocean," said Fischer. "Without the white shark there will be no more ocean." 

He explained that because the white shark is at the top of the ocean's food chain, its extinction would spell disaster for the rest of the creatures lower in the pyramid. The seal and squid population, normally consumed by white sharks, would explode and there would be a trickle-down effect within the food chain.

The 44-year-old Fischer, a modern day Jacques Cousteau, recently led his 27th expedition tagging Great Whites off Cape Cod for tracking and educational purposes. It's important to study the animals, he believes, not only for its protection but also to protect people.

After capturing a white shark, the crew lifts it onboard with a forklift-type device. Its eyes are covered and a hose is placed in its mouth. Then tags are inserted to track the shark's travels. Samples of blood, DNA and other body components are taken for research. Fischer said bacteria collected from sharks' teeth is helping researchers develop an antibiotic for shark bites.

"Many people who die from shark bites die from infection," he said.

IN MAINE

Both Fischer and Burgess agree that Great Whites inhabit Maine waters.

Fischer said the sharks are known to travel as far north as Nova Scotia, and so likely pass through the Gulf of Maine. Burgess speculated that one reason sightings aren't being reported in Maine is because there has been no consistent tracking of such incidents here. Fischer said that tagging Great White s will make it possible to track white sharks in more locations.

Scientists and the general public can access real-time shark data at www.ocearch.org.  Much of Fischer's research is being incorporated school curriculums which soon will be available for grades 6-8 worldwide, free of charge. Eventually the curriculum will be expanded for K-12.

"Their math lesson for the day will be to calculate how far the white shark traveled," said Fischer. "It's all about kids and the future of the ocean." 

 

 

 

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