At its heart, Chasing Shadows is a conservation success story. From our first meeting, the two of us—Greg Skomal, the scientist, and Ret Talbot, the science writer—knew this was the story we wanted to tell. We were intent on sharing the largely untold and remarkable story of the return of the great white shark to the western North Atlantic in numbers not seen in more than half a century. But we also knew that it was a story with some baked-in challenges that New England beachgoers, beach managers, and public-safety professionals are still struggling to come to terms with.
Not everyone views the great white shark’s return to the beaches of Cape Cod and the rocky coast of Maine and beyond as a success. There is, and there will continue to be, conflict. Beaches have been closed. People have been bitten. Two have died. As we set out to research and write this book, we knew we had a needle to thread.
In a world where an expanding human population continues to threaten biodiversity, conservation has emerged as a powerful tool capable of saving species from the brink of extinction. But not all conservation success stories are the same, and not all people agree on which species should be conserved. For example, restoring the endangered Karner blue butterfly to parts of its native range in the Midwest and New England is an entirely different proposition than bringing a 4,000-pound apex predator back to the shallows off some of the Northeast’s most popular beaches. In the case of the shark, what often results is something referred to in the literature as “conservation conflict.”
As a scientist, Greg unexpectedly found himself with a front-row seat to the great white shark’s comeback in New England. In a way, that seat was not unlike the one in which he’d sat in the 1920s-era theater in downtown Fairfield, Connecticut, where, in 1975, as a rising high-school freshman, he first saw Jaws. It inspired him to become a shark biologist.
In the 1990s, while running the Massachusetts Shark Research Program on Martha’s Vineyard, (where, incidentally, Jaws was filmed), Greg knew the state’s shark species better than most. He also knew that, except for a handful of incidents, white sharks simply were not part of the equation. Then, during one week in the late summer of 2009, the white shark dramatically reappeared off Cape Cod—almost as suddenly as the one that devoured the moonlit skinny dipper at the start of Jaws. It was a wake-up call, or, as Greg puts it, “a slap in the face.”
Although the appearance of five white sharks off Cape Cod seemed sudden to Greg and to those who flocked to the Cape in early September 2009—and in the zealous, Jaws-inspired media coverage that bordered on neurotic—the reality is that the white shark’s return had been a long time in the making.
Almost 40 years earlier, in 1972, Richard Nixon had signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (M.M.P.A.), which protected seals, one of the white shark’s preferred prey. By then, after nearly a century of state-sanctioned bounties, the gray seal had been nearly eliminated from New England. Not surprisingly, the white shark largely disappeared from the shallows and surf line as well. From Chatham on the Cape to Cutler, Maine, seals and white sharks were relatively rare sights.
During one week in the late summer of 2009, the great white shark dramatically reappeared off Cape Cod—almost as suddenly as the moonlit skinny dipper’s demise at the start of Jaws.
Ecological knowledge and archaeological evidence prove that a robust white-shark population was part of the nearshore western North Atlantic eco-system for as long as humans have inhabited its shorelines. And the fossil record shows they were here long before we were. Today, we know a healthy eco-system relies heavily on keystone species, which, like the white shark, are often apex predators that help maintain biodiversity. We know the presence of healthy shark populations is often an indicator of good ocean health.
Since 2009, when Greg tagged those first white sharks, the data has shown an increase in white sharks in New England waters. To date, Greg has tagged more than 300 white sharks. It’s not known how large the population is, but there is little doubt that the M.M.P.A., combined with federal and then state prohibitions on killing white sharks, has allowed this conservation success story to unfold.
Good news, right?
“They’re eating our children,” said one woman at a town meeting in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 2018, after the state’s first fatality attributed to a white shark in more than 80 years. Another person spoke of the M.M.P.A. and the prohibition on killing white sharks as “misguided and outdated government policies,” placing conservation over human well-being. Someone else referenced a “runaway population explosion” in both seals and sharks, which wasn’t surprising given that the speaker was probably born after the M.M.P.A. went into effect.
This level of conflict should have come as no surprise. Even in the face of data showing improved eco-system health credited to the restoration, there are those who wish to return to the shifted baseline of no predators that endanger human lives and livelihoods. Even with a carefully choreographed, highly publicized, and data-laden restoration, such as the re-introduction of wolves to the Rocky Mountains, the future for a restored predator is not at all certain. During the winter of 2022, more Yellowstone wolves were hunted and legally killed than at any other time in the past century.
“They’re eating our children.”
The conservation success story at the heart of Chasing Shadows did not occur in a wilderness far from major population centers. Families on beach vacations are confronted with billboard-size signs with Warning emblazoned over an image of a white shark, mouth agape, teeth exposed. Officials are talking to moms and dads and babysitters about what it means to be “shark smart” and to coexist with an apex predator. It’s no surprise there is conflict when people are ceding hard-won territory protected by lifeguards and serviced by infrastructure associated with a multi-billion-dollar tourism industry.
As a scientist and a science writer, we like to think that the data Greg and his colleagues create, and which we share with a broader audience through scientific journals and articles in magazines such as National Geographic, will lead to conflict resolution, but it will not. At least not on its own. As conservation biologist Stephen M. Redpath writes in Conflicts in Conservation: Navigating Towards Solutions, “The conflicts that surface around conservation often appear to be about impact.... This approach, however, rarely works for the simple reason that many of these conflicts are about much more than impact.”
Writing our book, we came to appreciate that telling the story of the white shark’s resurgence in the western North Atlantic was best done by doing just that—telling a story that goes beyond robust science. Yes, we celebrate the achievement of restoring an apex predator to an eco-system, and, yes, we share plenty of data, but we don’t present a scientifically sound silver bullet or a definitive answer or technology that will resolve the conflict. Instead, we trust that the story will promote a dialogue that can find the common ground between conserving biodiversity, protecting our own well-being, and preserving the livelihoods on which many depend.
Greg Skomal is a shark biologist and the head of the Massachusetts Shark Research Program. Ret Talbot is a science writer. Their book, Chasing Shadows: My Life Tracking the Great White Shark, is out now from William Morrow