Driving along the roads of Cape Cod, past shops selling unicorn floaties and places to grab a lobster roll, it’s easy to forget we live on the edge of wilderness – the Atlantic Ocean – which requires awareness and respect.
A social science survey delved into human perceptions of that watery wilderness and the growing numbers of seals and sharks that live there. The results may play a role in how we harness the power of the blue economy and educate our visitors and residents.
The 2021 study, ““Human Dimensions of Rebounding Seal and Shark Populations on Cape Cod,” was led by Professor Jennifer Jackman, Ph.D. of Salem State University's Department of Politics, Policy and International Relations. Funded by Woods Hole Sea Grant, the study is a partnership between Salem State University, University of Massachusetts-Boston, Center for Coastal Studies, Tufts University, Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, and Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
“Although differences in attitudes were apparent, voters, commercial fishermen, and tourists shared a commitment to marine wildlife protection. That’s the kind of foundation you can build co-existence strategies on,” Jackman said.
Dr. Andrea Bogomolni, Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium, points out “seals and sharks had almost disappeared from Cape Cod waters because of human intervention, but with human protections, they are coming back.” This “re-wilding” prompts conflict and concern along with appreciation.
One finding of the study is that voters and tourists like seeing seals and largely perceive them as beneficial, positive and enjoyable. Commercial fishermen do not. But all three groups agreed with the statement, “I am willing to accept some inconvenience and risk in order to have oceans where marine wildlife can thrive.”
“Tourism and commercial and recreational fishing are all critical parts of the Massachusetts Blue Economy,” said Matt Charette, director of Woods Hole Sea Grant, which funded the study. “The comprehensive study builds a foundation for effective communication about conserving wildlife and reducing negative human interactions with sharks and seals.”
Understanding and documenting differing perspectives is critical for coming up with solutions, researchers said. And, the study’s findings will help inform managers about which policies the public feels are acceptable and which are not.
The team developed a survey to collect the views of three stakeholder groups on Cape Cod: tourists, voters, and members of the fishing community. Through mail-in and online surveys, people were asked questions ranging from attitudes on seals and sharks, beliefs and experiences, if the presence of seals and sharks changed their behavior at the beach, and their views of lethal and non-lethal management approaches. Where people get their information and other topics were also covered.
Despite the concerns about white sharks, Cape Cod tourists are still going to the beaches. Only 3 percent of tourist respondents report reducing the frequency of beach visits to avoid sharks (although 46 percent report that they may stay on the beach instead of swimming).
“The study will influence development of the Conservancy’s outreach materials and education programs moving forward, especially since the study finds the public is generally unaware about the natural history and evolution of white sharks off Cape Cod.” said Marianne Walsh, Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. “The study also provides valuable insight to help us effectively deliver public safety information to tourists and residents, as well as shape programs to further advance marine ecosystem conservation.”
The survey also highlighted differences in perspectives commercial fishermen have about seals and, to a lesser extent, sharks.
“Fishermen’s opinions come from a place of direct experience and intimate knowledge of the ocean, so it was critical that they be included in this public perception survey,” said Melissa Sanderson, Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, explaining that the study documented blame for seals reducing and suppressing fish stock, hurting the economy, and creating public safety risks by attracting sharks.
“The desire to keep seals away from fishing gear is really high for fishermen,” Sanderson added. “As the region develops deterrents and conducts research on what works and what doesn’t work, knowing that the public is supportive of non-lethal management measures is really important to seeing those efforts succeed.”
Lisa Sette, Center for Coastal Studies, said the findings were incorporated into naturalist trainings and educational events as well as shared with local, regional, state and federal officials.
“It’s pretty clear the survey shows that there is a need and desire for more education,” Sette said. “This study fosters communication and collaboration between community partners and researchers to produce effective, science-based education.”
Learn more about seals, white sharks, and the study results online at: