Maine’s first shark-caused human fatality came as a shock to residents and vacationers alike, but the odds of that occurring in Massachusetts waters increase virtually daily, thanks to conservation efforts that have swelled both seal and shark populations.
Authorities have confirmed that a 63-year-old woman from New York City was killed by a great white shark on Monday while swimming with her daughter off Harpswell, Maine’s Bailey Island.
Julie Dimperio Holowach became the first known person to die from a shark attack in Maine’s history, Patrick Keliher, the state’s Marine Patrol Commissioner, said at a Tuesday press conference.
Holowach, wearing a wetsuit, was swimming with her daughter about 20 yards from the shore when she was attacked. Thankfully her daughter escaped injury.
A fragment of a shark tooth found in the area of the attack was later positively identified by a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries official as belonging to a great white.
The only other confirmed shark attack in Maine occurred 10 years ago near Eastport.
Swimmers and boaters were urged to use caution near Bailey Island, and avoid swimming near schooling fish or seals.
That’s certainly easier to do along the Maine coast.
But off Cape Cod beaches? Not so much.
Years of federal protection efforts have caused a proliferation of grey and harbor seals on the Cape and South Shore, especially off the coast of Chatham.
And that in turn has attracted the seals’ primary predator, sharks, in mounting numbers.
It’s actually amazing that since 2012, there have only been three shark attacks off Wellfleet and Truro, on the outer Cape. Two years ago, 26-year-old Arthur Medici was killed while boogie-boarding at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet — the first shark attack fatality in 82 years in Massachusetts.
While it’s difficult to assess how many sharks invade the Cape during the summer season, experts agree the seal population has reached staggering proportions.
Sharon Young, the marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States, told the Associated Press in a July 2019 interview that nearly 300,000 seals “go back and forth between Canada and the U.S. ”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act allows states to assume the responsibility for conservation and management of a species once it reaches its “optimum sustainable population.”
However Young conceded that controlling Cape Cod’s seal population would be a daunting — likely impossible — task.
That’s because “the 10,000 (seals) that are on a specific beach today are not the same 10,000 that might be there tomorrow.”
That’s essentially the same answer a Massachusetts citizen’s group seeking ways to protect Cape Cod beachgoers from great white sharks received last year.
Peter Howell, a founder of the Seal Action Committee, wanted Congress to amend the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act so seals and other species can be removed from the law’s list of protected animals if their populations have sufficiently rebounded.
Democratic Congressman Bill Keating, who represents Cape Cod, said at the time delisting seals from the protection act wouldn’t change things. He reiterated Humane Society Field Director Young’s assertion that the migration of gray seals from Canada would quickly replace any vacuum.
So, beachgoers, seals and sharks are here to stay — guests no less of the federal government — which apparently values their welfare over its human constituents’ lives and limbs.