BOSTON -- Although media were turned away from an informational briefing on sharks in Massachusetts, that didn't stop legislators from sinking their teeth into the topic.
"Today was really an informational session, we're coastal legislators, and so we're familiar with marine life, marine mammals, marine animals, so today was to give our colleagues from across the state the opportunity to learn more, not only about great white sharks, but about a whole host of shark species that are up and down the coast," Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Falmouth told reporters after the event.
A press release promoting the briefing was sent to the News Service last week. The News Service spread word about the briefing, which organizers said would help raise public awareness, but media were denied entry to the session. Fernandes said they had to turn people away because of unexpectedly high attendance.
"This is meant for legislators and staff as an informational session so they were the priority," Fernandes said. "And the fact that we had to turn away 60, 70 people just shows you why we didn't want to make the room any smaller than it could've been, but I apologize."
Concerns about public safety and sharks resurfaced last September when Arthur Medici, 26, was killed by a great white shark while boogie boarding in Cape Cod. It was the first fatal shark attack since 1936, and the incident, as well as the general presence of sharks in the area, is causing a buzz as summer arrives.
Rep. Sarah Peake of Provincetown suggested that the rise in sharks was partly attributable to the increase in gray seals in the area. Gray seal populations have also been moving down from Canadian waters since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and are a source of food for sharks.
Since the attack, several steps have been taken, including allocating $383,000 to buy emergency call boxes, satellite phones for lifeguards, training for citizens and first responders and other outreach and education.
Peake said a major effort now is to support funding for research on sharks, to ensure that prevention efforts are actually effective.
"There's a lot of ideas out there but we need to make fact-based scientific ideas for two reasons, one we don't want to waste taxpayer dollars throwing money at solutions that just aren't going to work," she said. "And the second reason is we don't want to throw money at something and tell the public 'Oh its safe to go into the waters' and give them a false sense of safety."
The House budget this year reserved funding for the Division of Marine Fisheries, the White Shark Conservancy, and other groups to support research on sharks, including tagging and geology monitoring.
"It's about education and it's about funding because you can't do white shark research just on a wish," Peake said. "You need money to do that so we're fighting hard as legislators, one thing we can do is fight for opportunities in the budget to fund this emerging area."
The White Shark Conservancy has worked with groups and state agencies to create advisory signs for beaches, flags, and educational brochures. Their website suggests staying close to shore, avoiding murky water, limiting splashing, and watching for the purple flag on beaches, a warning that white sharks are in the area.
Peake also said legislators from other areas are also prepared to prioritize the issue, something she saw in the House budget debate.
"For no other reason, a lot of them vacation on Cape Cod, so they all have a little bit of skin in the game in that way and that's a good thing that we can leverage," she said.
And for residents looking forward to sunny summer days on the beach, lawmakers urged them to pay attention to posted warnings and use caution.
"I wouldn't swim at dawn or dusk, that's a traditional feeding time for every species of fish," Peake said. "You might get bitten by a bluefish at that hour, quite honestly. I'd avoid swimming with seals and I would exercise caution before going into deep water."