Cape Cod Ramps Up Shark Safety, But Which Species Are Dangerous?

shark-detecting buoys and emergency landlines highlight new safety tech

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Cape Cod is investing in new beach tech to prevent shark attack deaths, according to NPR. Beach towns in the area are adding taller lifeguard chairs, emergency phones, and more. At the same time, some species of shark are known to flee upon seeing us. So who’s who?

Shark warning sign on beach
Although shark attacks have been sensationalized in movies and the media, not all shark species attack humans. In fact, they would prefer to swim away. Photo by Nicholas Floyd / Shutterstock

The recent rise in shark precautions is partly based on a surge in seal populations in and around the Cape Cod area. As the food source for sharks becomes more abundant, so do the sharks. The NPR article stated that concerns also spiked after a fatal shark attack last year killed a 26-year-old boogie boarder. However, although shark attacks should be taken seriously, the reality about these toothy aquatic lifeforms is a far cry from most of our preconceptions about them.

A New Perspective on Sharks

“The International Shark Attack File, or ISAF, has recorded almost 3,000 shark attacks in the last 60 years or so, of which about 550 were fatal,” said Dr. Sean K. Todd, the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. “On average, that’s about 10 fatalities per year. As a source of mortality, that ranks less than attacks from the Nile crocodile, hippopotamus, snakes, and even dogs.”

According to Dr. Todd, if you live anywhere in the coastal United States, for every fatal shark attack, there are 75 people killed by lightning—and 1,000 killed while on a bicycle. Sharks’ bad reputation comes from just four species of troublemakers. “Of particular concern are tiger, the bull, and oceanic white-tipped sharks, as well as the famous great white shark,” he said. “All of these species have been known to attack humans unprovoked, but the remaining 500 or so other species would rather just swim away.”

It may also come as a surprise that some sharks have eschewed the predatory lifestyle altogether. They belong to the taxonomic group called chondrichthians, of the class chondrichthyes, characterized by skeletons composed of cartilage rather than solid bone. “Some chondrichthians have chosen, through natural selection and evolution of life, [to be] filter feeders, over predation,” Dr. Todd said. “Four species—the whale shark, the basking shark, the megamouth shark, and the manta ray—feed exclusively on plankton suspended in the water column.”

Changing the Narrative

Since shark attacks happen less often—and involve fewer shark species—than we imagine, why do we get so concerned about them? “The media tends to sensationalize stories of shark attacks, and this only reinforces that killer reputation,” Dr. Todd said.

But all is not lost. “Documentaries these days focus less on the reputation of sharks as killers and place greater emphasis on debunking myths about them. Meanwhile, ecotourism is increasing our exposure to these animals, helping create safe interactions with a range of species. One can hang out with hammerheads, swim with stingrays, mingle with manta rays, and worship whale sharks.”

Dr. Todd said that due to programs like these, the far less frightening truth about sharks is slowly getting out to the public. In the meantime, added safety measures in areas like Cape Cod may give beachgoers the peace of mind they need to get back in the water.

Dr. Todd holds the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine

Dr. Sean K. Todd contributed to this article. Dr. Todd holds the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. He received a Joint Honours undergraduate degree in Marine Biology and Oceanography from Bangor University in the United Kingdom and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Biopsychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada.