Rockland, MaineMaine saw its first fatal shark attack in the state’s history Monday when a shark killed a 63-year-old New York woman off Bailey Island, Maine, northeast of Portland.
“Based on the information I have from the state of Maine, including photos of tooth fragments, this was definitely caused by a white shark attack,” says Greg Skomal, a leading Atlantic great white shark expert and senior scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Maine officials invited Skomal to consult on the investigation into the attack.
The return of great white sharks to New England over the past two decades is both a conservation success story and an emerging public safety concern. Though it is extremely rare for a shark to attack—much less kill—a human, incidents are on the rise in New England. Since 2012, there have been five attacks in the region, all in Massachusetts. Only two have been fatal: Monday’s, and the death of a boogie boarder off Cape Cod in 2018. Before 2012, the most recent attack occurred in 1936. (Read about how Cape Cod has grappled with becoming a great white shark hotspot.)
It’s not known precisely how many great white sharks are in New England waters, but a tagging program Skomal started in 2009 suggests the number is growing steadily. Data from a five-year population study he launched in 2014 is still being processed, but he tagged a record-breaking 50 white sharks off Cape Cod in 2019.
Shark scientists think most unprovoked great white shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity. “The tragic loss of life yesterday was likely a mistake made by a white shark attempting to feed on what it thought was a seal,” Skomal says.
Sharks return to New England
Skomal first started paying close attention to great white sharks in New England in 2004, when a 14-foot, 1,700-pound female great white got trapped in a Massachusetts salt pond. At the time, Atlantic great white sharks had not been intensively studied because there were so few of them. Their numbers plummeted in the 1970s and 1980s, as the sharks got caught in commercial fishing nets and were targeted by sport fishermen. The great white shark population in the Atlantic during the 1980s was estimated to be just 27 percent of what it had been in 1961, according to a 2014 study. Like many sharks, they’re particularly vulnerable to population declines because they grow slower, live longer, and produce fewer offspring than many other animals.
Based on reports of sightings from fishermen and evidence of increasing shark predation on seals, Skomal began to think the shark in the salt pond was less of an aberration and more an indication that the species was rebounding.
“It was eye-opening that we had a big, 14-foot white shark swimming in Massachusetts waters,” he says.
The sharks’ resurgence is the result of two actions taken by the federal government. First, in 1972, the Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The landmark legislation prohibited the killing of seals, which were overhunted largely because they competed for the same fish with fishermen in Massachusetts and Maine. By the time the MMPA was signed into law, a seal census found fewer than 50 gray seals along the entire Maine coastline. Today their numbers are estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
Then, in 1997, in acknowledgment of the “precarious state” of Atlantic shark populations, the National Marine Fisheries Service banned fishing for great white sharks.
Thanks to the growth in both the seal population and a protected shark population, Cape Cod emerged as a white shark hotspot. In that, it joined the ranks of California’s Farallon Islands; South Africa’s Seal Island and Mossel Bay; Mexico’s Guadalupe Island; New Zealand’s Chatham Islands; and Australia’s Neptune Islands.
Some scientists hypothesize that great white sharks are expanding their range farther northeast into the Gulf of Maine because the competition for food around Cape Cod has become more intense. Skomal disagrees. “As the white shark population rebounds and seal populations rebound,” he says, “this predator-prey relationship is going to re-emerge anywhere these two species overlap, including the Gulf of Maine in the summer.”
Skomal says that, while they’re not common, great white sharks have long been visiting the Gulf of Maine every summer, and regularly make their way to the northern parts of the Gulf of Maine and beyond. Last week, a Canadian family filmed a white shark off the southwest tip of Nova Scotia; in 2019, OCEARCH, a nonprofit organization that facilitates shark research, tagged 11 off Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast.
Safety at the beach
Maine residents didn’t need to observe a shark firsthand or follow one on a shark tracking app to know they were there. The day before Monday’s fatal attack, a dead seal was found near Phippsburg, 12 miles northeast of Bailey Island. Based on a bite wound 19 inches across, Skomal says the seal was likely the victim of a great white shark. A week ago, a seal was found with a large bite wound at Biddeford Pool, 25 miles southwest of Bailey Island. And in early July at Cape Elizabeth, between Bailey Island and Biddeford Pool, another seal was found with signs of a likely shark attack.
It’s too soon to say whether Maine’s first shark fatality will cause people to think twice before going in the water. Jeff Nichols, a spokesperson for Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, said in an email that the state is urging caution, but he didn’t say if they’d be reconsidering protocols for when to close beaches. For now, “we are recommending that people avoid schooling fish and seals,” Nichols wrote. (Read about the psychology behind why people fear sharks.)
Many towns on Maine’s southern coast are dependent on beach tourism. When great white sharks first began returning to Cape Cod, towns along the Outer Cape, including Truro, Wellfleet, Orleans, and Chatham began exploring shark detection technology, such as acoustic receivers that can notify beach officials in real time if a tagged shark is present. People also began experimenting with shark deterrent measures: striped wet suits and surfboards as well as electrical, magnetic, and acoustic repellents. Some Cape politicians have even argued for shark nets and culls.
Skomal says there is no “silver bullet” to resolve the concern, and that all of the shark detection and deterrent strategies have their limitations.
In Massachusetts, the debate over how to balance public safety with conservation of great white sharks has become heated, with some calling for culling seals and hunting sharks. Many fishermen aren’t particularly fond of seals to begin with because they compete for the same fish. Asked about the seals and sharks in 2018 after the town’s first fatal shark attack, Cape Cod fisherman Chris Ciccarelli was blunt: “Kill ‘em all. “I have no ill feelings towards the sharks.”
Scientists say they have no reason to believe there will be a spike in shark attacks in Maine. The idea of a rogue great white shark like the one portrayed in Jaws is as much a fiction as the movie itself. As Skomal is quick to say, “you’re more likely to be killed in a car accident on the way to the beach than by a white shark at the beach.” The Florida Museum International Shark Attack File reported that worldwide in 2019, there were 64 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks resulting in just two confirmed deaths. By comparison, it’s estimated that humans kill at least 100 million sharks globally each year.
“Events of this nature are extremely rare, particularly off the coast of Maine,” Skomal says, “but no less horrifying.”