What to do after the first fatal shark bite in Massachusetts since 1936: 3 experts respond

Two weeks ago, tragedy struck in New England as a boogie boarder was killed by a great white shark. Though shark bites* in general and fatal shark bites* specifically are incredibly rare (Mr. Medici was the first person killed by a great white shark in Massachusetts waters in 82 years), emotions are running high. Some Cape Cod residents are explicitly calling for a cull (targeted killing) of great white sharks.

Such a cull would be devastating for a recovering but still protected shark species, has been shown not to effectively reduce shark bites, and is opposed by shark experts around the world, but what, if anything, should local governments do instead? I’ve written in the past about alternatives to lethal shark control here and here, but not every solution is applicable for every location; local oceanographic conditions vary, as well as local laws and cultural norms. I reached out to three experts to ask what, if anything, they think should be done here. Here’s what they had to say:

Cynthia Wigren, Chief Executive Officer & Co-founder of Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

” In the aftermath of such a horrible tragedy — even one as rare as what happened over the weekend— there’s an understandable reaction to ask ‘what more can be done.’ We’ve spent the last five years working to facilitate the study of white shark behavior in their natural habitat and to share that research with public safety officials so that policies or measures considered are based on sound scientific understanding.We don’t take this situation lightly. We, our family and friends, go to Cape Cod beaches impacted by the presence of white sharks. This is not just where we work, this is our community.”
– Cynthia Wigren

Dr. Gavin Naylor, Director, Florida Program for Shark Research, Florida Museum of Natural History 

“The best solution is the long term solution: We need to invest in public education. We also need to invest in infrastructure to monitor shark activity so we can provide efficient responses when required.

(1) The public needs to understand when it safe to venture into the water and when it is not.
(2) The public needs to be made aware of the value of having healthy steady state populations of sharks, seals and all of the unsung organisms lower in the trophic hierarchy.
(3) Resources need to be made available to monitor shark activity (Some have suggested a system of statically tethered weather balloons with CCTV cameras constantly transmitting images to monitor when sharks are in the area)
(4) There needs to be training and coordination among emergency responders, ocean rescue people (life guards etc), fishermen and local scientists to develop efficient and effective ways to deal with situations when sharks are spotted close to beaches.
(5) Beaches need to be posted with signs so that the public are informed of the risks

I believe Cynthia and The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy is doing a pretty good job on all these fronts. … But it takes time to penetrate the collective conscience of the public. Shorter term solutions such as culling seals/sharks, while possibly effective in the short term, will likely cause bigger problems (both politically and ecologically) in the long term.”
-Dr. Gavin Naylor

Dr. Christopher Pepin-Neff, University of Sydney lecturer and shark bite researcher

“The Wellfleet beach used public education as its chief action. The sign noted that White Sharks are in the shoreline area, that people should swim close to shore, and that they should avoid seal populations. Outside of banning swimming, surfing and boogie-boarding (which is what happened in this tragic incident) there is little that would have been effective in my opinion.

One important environmental context to note is that Cape Cod is presents one of the only locations in the world where people, sharks and seals share the same water at the same time. Seals live on shore, not on an offshore island.”
– Dr. Christopher Pepin-Neff


Further reading: 

After a fatal shark attack on Cape Cod, will the reaction be coexistence or culling? By Carlos G. García-Quijano, for the Conversation.

Here’s how communities around the world are trying to prevent shark attacks. By Michael Levenson, for the Boston Globe.

Emotions run high at Wellfleet shark meeting. By Doug Fraser, for the Cape Cod Times.

Shark Expert urges caution in the wake of fatal attack. By Susan Tran for NBC Boston

Responding to the Risk of White Shark Attack: Updated Statistics, Prevention, Control Methods, and Recommendations. Textbook chapter from the book “GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE BIOLOGY AND LIFE HISTORY OF THE GREAT WHITE SHARK,” with lead author Dr. Tobey Curtis.

*Please note that I am using the terms “shark bite” and “fatal shark bite” from a revised typology by written by colleagues Chris Neff and Bob Hueter, instead of the more inflammatory term “shark attack.” I wrote about this proposed terminology change here.

If you appreciate my shark research and conservation outreach, please consider supporting me on Patreon! Any amount is appreciated, and supporters get exclusive rewards!


  1. Dennis · October 2, 2018

    the stories from my friends in the surf community indicate the threat is real and growing and an everyday problem. Mr. Medici is the first but not the last. Just last week one surfer was circled six times by a shark, which left then returned and circled him again. Another group of surfers left the water only to see two whites breach and then to see a small school of shark fins they counted as ten. So, this is real data-what doe sit say to you?

    • David Shiffman · October 2, 2018

      Hi Dennis, and thanks for commenting! Sharks are indeed returning to the Cape, due to a combination of recovering populations and shifting migration patterns due to the recovery of seals. There’s no doubt about this. The risk of negative shark-human interactions remains very low, but public education efforts are vital to reduce risk even further.

  2. Dennis · October 2, 2018

    dave-i respectfully disagree about the risks. The time for shark education and platitudes has passed. The concentration of these beasts has skyrocketed in the preceding decade if not five years and is only getting worse as each year ticks by.

    We have had three shark attacks in the trailing thirteen months, one that ended with a death before the young man hit the beach ten yards away. Yes, it was ten yards offshore, not thirty nor three hundred as the NYTimes reported. A second attack a mere month prior came less than an inch from the same outcome-certain death before landfall- as the victim was spared due to preservation of the femoral artery by less than an inch of flesh. That attack was in five foot waters. The third attack was in three feet of water, albeit murky/mungy water. All occurred mid-day, exactly the so-called ‘safe time’ to swim according to educational materials.

    It is easy to see with increased concentrations that there will be more attacks and they will happen more regularly. We may not have seen the last of this year as TS Leslie is throwing consistent surf our way for another week or more…and people will be on it…but i hope we have seen the last of it all for 2018.

    To put the issue in perspective, I understand there are somewhere between 1000 and 2000 whites in and around cape cod. (I have heard this number and done my own math and those numbers hold up). This over 24 miles of coastline facing the Atlantic. That is 40-80 per mile. Now, they are not lined up nor restricted in location, but this is just a rough figure. My friend who is a knowledgeable lifeguard saw on average more than one per day this summer from his perch. Numerous people report breachings. They are also now stealing stripers and other fish being reeled in from fishing boats left and right.

    The public education that I see on these beaches advises exactly what the young man who died did-close to shore, mid day, with friends. So I advise those interested to reconsider the so-called rules or facts around sharks, at least as they apply to an exploding and hungry population so close to shore as on Cape Cod.

    Furthermore, this will become not only a cape cod problem but a New England coast problem in due time. The issue in some regards is the food source of the seals, obviously, and they migrate from Sable Island to Muskeget to the Cape and in between. With over a quarter million seals as I understand out there, they will soon and already are populating new niches to bring sharks into waters where humans swim more regularly than the back shore of cape cod. Such can only have tragic endings for us humans and will soon enough.

    This is no longer a low risk situation and these facts support this. Cape cod is rewriting the rule book on shark attacks. Sharks attack-that is what they do for food/survival. And the numbers are growing rapidly. The sharks are close to shore, where people also play, mingle, swim and recreate. They attack in three four five feet of water, not always from below in deeper waters.

    The time to feel good about the academic distance is passed for this situation. More people will die, more will be permanently maimed. Academic solutions/education will not suffice as they already have not. Not that such matters in comparison to loss of life, but the economy is also already taking a hit. Worse, the littoral region was many folks’ refuge from the encroaching world that has taken so much already and now this blow to their sense of peace and to their economic fortitude.

    The Cape is now a slow motion disaster sowed decades ago and we are paying for it today and tomorrow. We will pay even greater prices in the coming years, as the population of white sharks increases even more and these tragedies increase in number as invariably will happen; any assertion to the contrary is naive.

    Thanks for reading and considering. Please do what you can to help us. Thank you.

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