Social science reveals varying opinions on seals, sharks
By Doreen Leggett
A social science survey on human perceptions of growing numbers of seals and sharks on Cape Cod may play a role in fisheries management in the coming weeks.
One finding of “Human Dimensions of Rebounding Seal and Shark Populations on Cape Cod” is that voters and tourists like seeing seals and largely perceive of them as beneficial, positive and enjoyable. Commercial fishermen do not. But all three groups want to share the ocean and support non-lethal management of seals and sharks.
That agreement matters as fishermen begin to meet with NOAA fisheries on ways to prevent seals from stealing their catch.
“The desire to keep seals away from fishing gear is really high for fishermen,” said Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance. “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.”
Sanderson was a co-investigator of the study, led by Professor Jennifer Jackman, Ph.D. of Salem State University's Department of Politics, Policy and International Relations. The study was funded by Woods Hole Sea Grant.
The 118-page report, released earlier this month at a press event in Woods Hole, was more than a decade in the making.
Dr. Andrea Bogomolni, chair of the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium’s steering committee, told those gathered she had met Jackman, at the time a Mashpee resident, when she gave a talk about human interactions with coyotes. The topic resonated with Bogomolni. Seals and sharks had almost disappeared because of human intervention, but with human protections, they also were coming back.
This “re-wilding,” as Bogomolni called it, prompts conflict and concern along with appreciation. She and Jackman felt that by understanding and identifying these differing perspectives they could build effective communication strategies to reduce conflicts and promote co-existence.
“Attitudes predict behavior,” Jackman said.
By the time the study was launched in 2021 the researcher and co-investigator list numbered more than 20, including teams from Fishermen’s Alliance, University of Massachusetts-Boston, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy and Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.
Through mail-in and online surveys, close to 2,000 stakeholders were asked questions ranging from attitudes on seals and sharks, beliefs and experiences, if the presence of seals and sharks changes behavior at the beach, and whether they agree with lethal management. Where people get their information and other topics were also covered.
“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 of seals and sharks,” said Sanderson, who also noted that the Fishermen’s Alliance participated in the research to ensure that fishermen were accurately represented in the study and to build open dialogue with other organizations in order to work towards solutions.
By large margins, respondents in all groups agreed with the statement, “I am willing to accept some inconvenience and risk in order to have oceans where marine wildlife can thrive.” All groups also supported the goals of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and said protecting wildlife is more important than the economic value the ocean provides.
“It’s significant there is a protection orientation to all three stakeholders. That’s the kind of foundation you can build co-existence strategies on,” Jackman said.
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). Visitors may be wary, but they are still coming to the Cape, as evident from the reports that the 2022 summer season is fully booked.
The survey also highlighted differences in perspectives commercial fishermen have about seals and, to a lesser extent, sharks.
Commercial fishermen have negative perceptions of seals. The study documented blame for seals reducing and suppressing fish stock, hurting the economy, and creating public safety risks by attracting sharks.
Sanderson said fishermen’s negative views of seals is grounded in direct experience; most, if not all fixed gear and hook fishermen have felt economic harm. She said there is one fishing family who isn’t setting up weirs this spring because it doesn’t make economic sense, seals have been eating too much of the catch and changing how the fish behave.
Understanding and documenting differing perspectives is critical for coming up with solutions, study supporters said. And, the study’s findings will help inform managers of which policies the public feels are acceptable and which are not.
Bogomolni said the study also emphasizes a reality that often goes unnoticed. Driving past unicorn floaties and places to grab a lobster roll, “it’s easy to forget we live on the edge of wilderness,” she said.
She is hoping that the survey leads to a more coordinated education effort.
Lisa Sette of the Center for Coastal Studies, a co-investigator, said the findings have been shared at a naturalist training attended by close to 200 people. Pop-ups and other educational events are planned and the study will be 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.
Read the study here.