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Divided Cape Board Issues Sharks-and-Seals Proclamation

August 1, 2019

The Barnstable County Commissioners have declared August 2019 to be Cape Cod Gray Seal and Great White Shark Awareness Month.

The commissioners voted 2-1 to approve the proclamation Wednesday, July 31, and all three signed it.

Great white sharks have attacked three people in water off the Outer Cape during the last few years.

On August 23, 2017 a shark took a bite out of a paddleboard off Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, sending a 69-year-old man tumbling into the water. On August 15, 2018, a shark bit a 61-year-old man in the hip and torso off Longnook Beach in Truro, causing serious injuries. On September 15, 2018, a shark bit a 26-year-old man off Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, killing him.

Two Wellfleet residents, John Kartsounis and Drew Taylor, addressed the county commissioners on Wednesday, saying they hope the proclamation will help inform people who don’t know much about the dangers from sharks off the Cape, encourage public officials to do something about it, and help bring private groups together to work on the problem.

“It will provide us with a springboard to disseminate much-needed information on this subject to the public and the media,” Kartsounis said.

Ron Beaty, a county commissioner, said he hopes the proclamation prompts action, without taking a position on whether, as some say, seals should be hunted so their population is reduced and fewer sharks come to the Cape to try to eat them.

“I think it also will provide like an umbrella for other entities, like towns or non-profits or the media, to do things like provide factoid information. I think it just provides a good overall background. From what I can tell, for instance, it doesn’t take a position on, you know, as far as mitigation or anything like that. It just provides public awareness, to help the public stay aware and vigilant about this problem as it moves forward,” Beaty said.

During a discussion Wednesday, county commissioner Ronald Bergstrom expressed opposition to the proclamation, saying proclamations should be used for uncontroversial matters like the Fourth of July.

“You celebrate something that everybody’s on board. This seems to be a vehicle by which we can discuss a very contentious issue – and we’ve seen the contention here previously, there are people who want us to take active steps to limit the shark and seal population, there are people who don’t want us to do that. I just feel like we’re in danger of creating a vehicle by which this debate can continue in a very undisciplined way,” Bergstrom said.

Residents, visitors, and local officials ought to learn about county resources to help deal with the shark problem, county commissioner Mary Pat Flynn said.

“I think as a county our responsibility is to get the message out,” Flynn said. “… It’s not so much we have to do anything specifically, but our mission is to make people aware that this exists, and if they need our assistance, we find ways we can work with them on it, all the better.”

Bergstrom said county commissioners shouldn’t use a proclamation to pick a side of a conflict.

“I’m going to be perfectly blunt here. … The people in front of us have an agenda. They have an answer already. All right? They want to do something about culling the shark population, and cull the seal population. And this is a vehicle to get that message out. And I don’t think the county is in the business of providing that vehicle,” Bergstrom said.

Kartsounis said he isn’t stumping for killing seals and sharks through the proclamation, but rather wants to explore various ways to address the safety problem, including technological approaches such as warning buoys.

“I think that your assertion that we are somehow cullers is not correct. And I’ve never said that. I’ve never been in favor of one specific solution. We’ve been in favor of all solutions. That’s what this proclamation is all about — bringing as many parties to the table as possible, creating a dialogue,” Kartsounis said.

Bergstrom said he didn’t mean to demean Kartsounis and Taylor, but he stood by his opposition to the proclamation.

Beaty and Flynn voted for the proclamation. Bergstrom, the chairman, voted against it. All three signed it after the vote.

State, local, and regional officials on Cape Cod have been unable to agree on what to do to prevent attacks on swimmers and surfers by great white sharks, whose presence in Cape waters has increased dramatically in recent years.

State officials have provided certain Cape towns with funds to obtain emergency call boxes, satellite phones, and all-terrain vehicles in hopes that emergency rescue workers can reach shark attack victims after the fact, so they can get treatment before they bleed out and die.

Some scientists who study sharks don’t see a problem. They are thrilled with the resurgence of sharks in Cape waters and consider it a success of government conservation programs, including a 1972 federal law that prohibits hunting seals. Sharks are also protected from hunting.

Various technological approaches to protect people have been proposed, including a sonar buoy that sends a warning when sharks are present, drones to spot sharks from above, and barriers to keep sharks away from certain beaches. The technology isn’t cheap, though, and some public officials are worried about spending significant amounts of public money without being sure the measures will work.

The most controversial method is to allow hunting of seals and sharks, known as culling the population. Researchers who study seals and sharks are against it. Some residents and Cape officials are for it.

Below are two images of the proclamation: