HARPSWELL, Maine — Three days after a great white killed a swimmer off Bailey Island in Harpswell, officers from the Maine Marine Patrol continued to scour coastal waters for sharks by land and by sea.
If they find a great white shark, they won’t kill it. Instead, state officials mostly seek information to document the presence of sharks and alert coastal communities.
Scientists and researchers also hope to learn more information about the species, saying that photos and reports of sharks and seals killed by sharks are helpful to them. Those can be shared with their local marine patrol officer, including as much specific information as possible.
“They tell us what species the shark is biting, where and when that’s happening, and the potential size and shape of the shark based on bite wounds,” Greg Skomal, a shark expert from Massachusetts said of the photos of seals attacked by sharks. “That is very useful information. We can start to piece together the predatory behavior of white sharks.”
Skomal has been working closely with the Maine Department of Marine Resources since the shark attack in Harpswell, and identified the killer shark from a tooth fragment recovered from the scene. He said that sharks have become much more prevalent since seals were protected nearly 50 years ago under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and are especially numerous off the outer part of Cape Cod. His research crew has tagged 200 sharks so far.
“They travel,” he said. “We know at least 40 of them have moved north of us into the Gulf of Maine, which includes the coast of Maine.”
Officials in Massachusetts use Skomal’s research to inform the public about shark risk, which is greater in Cape Cod between late May to mid-December.
In Maine, with colder water, shark season is shorter — lasting from July into October. There’s much more to learn, Skomal said, including hopefully one day identifying the areas and times of day where the risks are higher.
“A lot of people on Cape Cod have come to the realization that they have to modify their behavior,” because of the presence of sharks, he said. “Many people have changed how they use the water. A lot of folks don’t go beyond waist-deep water. Don’t swim in the presence of high populations of seals … You might want to modify your behavior, because we can’t modify the behavior of the sharks or the seals.”
But there’s also a broader human element in officials’ search for the killer shark.
“Obviously, if there’s a hope here, it’s that we never have this kind of horrific incident again,” Jeff Nichols, the communications director at the Maine Department of Marine Resources said Thursday.
Despite what happened to Julie Dimperio Holowach, the 63-year-old seasonal resident of Bailey Island who was bitten Monday afternoon while swimming about 20 yards from shore with her daughter, who was not injured, experts say the chances of getting killed by a great white shark are almost vanishingly small. Globally, there are around 130 shark attacks a year, with only 10 to 15 deaths, according to shark expert James Sulikowski of Arizona State University.
“You have a better chance of winning Megabucks,” he said.
Still, great white sharks are here — and they’re not going anywhere, he said. Mainers who play or work on the water need to get used to sharing the ocean with such a large predator.
“The reality is that white sharks have been in the waters off Maine for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and this is the first fatal attack. We’re not on their menu — that’s the main takeaway,” Sulikowski said. “The ocean is the shark’s home, and seals are shark food. We have to take that into account and respect that.”
Following Monday’s attack, there was a report of a shark sighting near Cousins Island in Casco Bay, which is northwest of Bailey Island. Someone also saw a seal there that appeared to have been “basically bitten in half,” Nichols said. Lifeguards at Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg also believe they spotted a shark, and in response the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry issued further restrictions to coastal waters.
Risk reduction will be the name of the game for the foreseeable future, according to shark experts and state officials. Nichols said that the Department of Marine Resources is urging people along the coast to avoid seals and schooling fish, which attract seals.
“Just stay away from them,” he said. “If you’re a swimmer, or if you’re in a paddle craft, like a paddleboard or kayak, it’s best to give schooling fish or seals a very wide berth. Sharks feed or prey on seals, and seals feed on fish.”