Blood in the Water: Do More Seals Mean More Shark Attacks?

Blood in the Water: Do More Seals Mean More Shark Attacks?

I walked along a remote Cape Cod beach at last light. The full moon had just popped above the horizon and the soft, east wind promised great fishing. A young woman stood at the water’s edge. Her black ponytail stuck out from the back of her faded Red Sox hat, and she watched her two young kids splash in the water. Her husband dozed on a beach blanket near the bonfire.

She smiled as I passed. “It’s a nice night for fishing,” she said.

“That’s for sure,” I replied

“Good luck.”

“Thanks. We hammered ’em pretty good last night.”

Without warning her smile turned into a shrill, bone-chilling scream that rocked the beach. Her kids heard it; it was loud enough to make folks sitting on a Kansas porch look around. The sea frothed white and turned red. Moments later a seal clawed on to the beach. Its back half was missing and a rip-current of blood poured back into the ocean. Someone caught it on video.

White sharks have always existed around Cape Cod, but until recently they stayed in deep water, miles and miles offshore. They tracked migrating whales and feasted on their dead or dying carcasses. In the past few decades, sharks moved so far inshore that fishermen, surfers, and swimmers have been forced to adjust.

The presence of Great White sharks is the in large part a result of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. President Nixon signed the bill into law with a goal of reviving staggeringly low seal, dolphin, and whale populations. Seals were hunted for their fur and to keep fish populations robust. Dolphins were incidental by-catch from tuna fishermen, and some whales were commercially harvested. The MMPA passed easily, it worked like a charm, and those populations rebounded.

But the seal populations did more than rebound—they exploded. Their population change off of Nantucket’s Muskeget Island is an example of the dramatic recovery. In 1988, five seal pups were recorded. In 1994 there were 2,010. In 1999 there were 5,611. At first, visitors from away thought they were cute. But with a current estimated 50,000 of them along the coast they aren’t so cute anymore. The sharks moved inshore to feed on the seals and they’re causing big problems.

White shark sightings never used to happen. Sharks stayed offshore whales while seal hunting kept populations low. Commercial and recreational fishermen didn’t want competition from the 10-foot adult seals that can weigh several hundred pounds and eat a lot of fish. From the 1800s through 1972, Massachusetts and Maine sportsmen were paid five bucks per seal nose. As a result of the bounty, the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium estimates that between 72,000 and 136,000 were killed. By the late 1960s the estimated New England seal population was below 8,000.

Hunting the Hunters
As the sharks came, so came the shark fishermen. Capt. Greg Dubrule who currently runs the Niantic, Connecticut, charter boat The Blackhawk, started his career in the early 1980s. Back then, Dubrule ran offshore to harpoon tuna and swordfish. But one day, dorsal fins got in his blood when he got a call from another captain who had spotted a dead whale with enormous chunks bitten out of it. He had to go look.

“That shark returned to feed later that day, and when it did, we harpooned it. We stuck it good, but that shark was so strong and powerful that it still took us five hours to get it to the boat. We towed it back to port and it was still alive when we arrived.”

The shark was 16 ½ feet long, 10 ½ feet in diameter, and weighed 3,412 pounds. Those stats made it a world record, but the fact that it was still alive was more important. It represented the first time scientists could swab bacteria from a living shark’s mouth. In the past, shark bite victims frequently died from bacterial infections coming from the germs surrounding the shark’s teeth and gums. Those doctors developed an antidote from those samples and over the years it has saved many lives.

Dubrule’s world record stood until 1986 when his good friend and Montauk, New York, sharker Frank Mundus returned with a bigger fish. While Mundus’ 3,427-pound shark broke the record by a scant 15 pounds, it punctuated the shark-killing frenzy of the ‘80s.

“Frank was a better offshore fisherman than an inshore fisherman,” Dubrule said. “He had a thing for sharks, and the pilings near his slip were littered with open jaws. Frank was a character, and if you knew him and saw the movie Jaws, then you’d recognize Mundus as Captain Quint. Many folks disagree, but the resemblance is uncanny.”

Blood on the Beach
Many New Englanders said it wouldn’t be long before someone got bit. A few years ago, a father and son were swimming to an offshore bar a few hundred yards from the beach. The father had been doing the same swim every year during his vacation week for some 30 years. A white shark attacked him, but his quick-thinking son repeatedly punched the shark in the nose until it released the man from its jaws. All he suffered were a few dozen sutures.

In 2018, a 61-year-old neurologist from Westchester was seriously bitten while swimming near resting seals. He survived, but his injuries paled in comparison to 26-year-old Arthur Medici who died when his femoral artery was severed by a white shark bite.

United States shark statistics show that the odds of getting bitten are still about the same as winning the lottery. Getting attacked is 1-in-11.5 million on average, and for the attack to be lethal it’s 1-in-264.1 million odds.

The seal attack I witnessed wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy have been studying white shark ecology for years. During that time they’ve tagged a number of sharks and can track their movement and behavior. Providing public shark activity alerts helps keep swimmers safe, but they show a lot of other things. Research from the tracking devices shows lots of things, including the fact that sharks are in our inshore waters well beyond the summer peoples’ departure around Labor Day. Some stay well into December.

Just ask Capt. Reuben Perez of East Coast Guide Service. After fishing season is wrapped, Perez spends the fall and winter guiding sea duck hunters in Rhode Island and Massachusetts: “I remember one frigid December day with a client from Vermont. We were hunting on Cape Cod and because of the chop we scraped the layouts to gun out of my 25-foot Titan. Big flocks of oldsquaws, eiders, and surf scoters dumped in to our dekes just after sun rise.”

They had a few hours of solid shooting and his client’s Lab retrieved every bird. Later in the morning the sun came out. The wind sat down, the surface chop flattened out, and the shooting action slowed.

“We had just poured some coffee when my client spotted a dorsal fin bumping into my long-line of dekes,” Perez said. “At first I thought it was a mola mola, the ocean sunfish. But it kept bumping the dekes, and after 15 minutes the fin turned and quickly headed away. The fact that it left behind a wake was a clear indication it was a shark. I figured it picked up on the duck blood in the water and came in looking for an easy meal. These days I don’t send either my own dogs or clients’ dogs on a retrieve. I don’t think sharks care if it’s a Lab or a seal swimming, and because it’s too risky, I pick up the ducks from my boat.”

West Coast, Best Coast?
If you think you can avoid white sharks by trading the East Coast for the West, think again. Over the past two decades, growing seal and sea lion populations have caused similar spikes in shark activity from California to Washington State. Not long ago, Murphy Jean, a tagged, 15-foot great white returned to the beaches north of the densely populated city of Los Angeles. Murphy Jean spent three months in Hawaii before travelling more than 5,000 miles to feed on seals and sea lions at the popular surfing beaches along Morro Bay.

Sharks eat striped bass on the East Coast, but they’ve got a five-specie salmon buffet in Washington, Oregon, and California. Much of the salmon feeding activity concentrates around traditional salmon staging areas at the mouths of the Columbia River and other major rivers but spreads out along the entire coastline. Twenty-eight shark attacks have been registered since 1974, with a third of those attacks occurring since 2002. The most recent bite occurred in 2016 when Joseph Tanner was surfing in Ecola State Park north of Cannon Beach, Oregon. Sightings are far more common too.

According to Jim Burke, the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s director of animal care, “Great whites give birth in warmer waters like Southern California and Mexico. They come up here to feed on seals and sea lions, looking for what keeps them alive. If they are feeding, they are going to be within the surf zone, a few hundred yards off the beach.”

Most recently, the cold waters off of Bailey Island in coastal Maine jumped into the shark scene when, in the first time in the state’s history, a victim died from a white shark attack. Julie Holowach, 63, a recently retired fashion executive from New York, was swimming 60 feet from shore with her daughter. One moment the pair was laughing, and the next moment there were screams for help. Julie was wearing a black wetsuit and her daughter was not. Historically, the cold water was thought to deter sharks. That thought has changed as well.

In this past month, a white shark was spotted off Race Point Beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It only a few feet from shore. Striper jockeys know Race Point as the beach that once gave up 40, 50, and 60-pound fish all night long. During the fall run, the late Hal Lyman, publisher of Saltwater Sportsman and the late Frank Woolner, the magazine’s editor, used to drive 4x4s with tin rowboats strapped to the roof and hammered fish in that same area. Needless to say, no one wades out very far these days.

The sharks are here to stay, so getting used to their presence is key. Up until a decade ago, my buddies and I used to wear black wetsuits and swim to the outer bars to fish at night. It wasn’t a long swim, maybe 75 yards or so, but it was worth it. We’d hammer fish on the outside of the break and then body-surf our way in when the tide got too high. There isn’t a chance that I’d do that these days, even if it meant I might hang a 50-pound bass. The seals and stripers are here to stay. And it seems the sharks are too.

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