Few animals capture our imagination like that of the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias). The largest predatory fish on the planet, the great white can reach lengths of over twenty feet long and can be found along shorelines regionally and around the world.
Although this shark species has only recently begun to approach a healthy population size in the Northeast, as New England’s shark population has grown, many within the human populace remain ambivalent, at once celebrating its growth but also lamenting the fact that they may increasingly need to stay out of the water.
Marine biologist Jon Dodd became interested in sharks at a young age and has since started one of the most well-connected shark institutions on the east coast. The Atlantic Shark Institute is a non-profit dedicated to shark conservation, research and advocacy. Dodd currently resides near the Rhode Island coastline where many different sharks species can be found. He and other scientists have documented the connection between the rise in seal populations and the increased presence of the white shark. “What a lot of people have seen is that this explosion of white sharks in Cape Cod coincides directly with the seal population there,” Dodd said.
But Dodd and his colleagues have consistently emphasized that this rise in population is a positive development rather than something to be feared. “What people need to understand is that sharks in our environment are a very, very good thing,” said Dodd. “When we see sharks, we know the environment is healthy, and when they are not there, it’s not a balanced environment; it simply can’t sustain itself.”
Although the shark population is seeing these overall increases, it is important to note that more than 100,000,000 sharks are still killed each year as a result of finning, fishing, and other human-related causes.
It is also important to acknowledge that having sharks in an environment is not without risk. In 2021, there were 73 unprovoked cases of shark attack worldwide, which is a relatively small number considering it was collected across all seven continents.
Scientists have developed guidelines so that those who enjoy the ocean can do so under the safest conditions possible. In general, swimmers should avoid sandbars or steep drop offs, and above all else should avoid water turbidity (or cloudy water). Dodd explains that sharks do not knowingly hunt humans and most attacks result from the shark believing it was hunting its natural prey. Swimming in areas where the water is especially cloudy increases the chances of a shark mistakenly targeting a human.
Despite these potential dangers, the increased presence of sharks should be welcomed not feared because it as a sign of a healthy and balanced ecosystem. We should be more afraid of the possibility that our misperceptions of sharks could lead to negative consequences for our oceans and our planet. In the end, sharks, especially the great white, deserve our respect and should be observed from a distance–or better yet from above the water!
Editors’ note: This is a special edition of the “Sunday Nature Walk” to celebrate the release of Tomas Koeck’s newest film Keepers of the Blue, which premieres Friday, April 22 at 7 p.m. at the SHU Community Theatre in Fairfield. For free tickets click here.
Photo at top by Tomas Koeck