Contradictions of shark romance

We all knew this day would come” ran the big front page headline about the fatal shark attack in Wellfleet. Well, actually, no, we didn’t. Six deaths annually worldwide on average (and first fatality in Massachusetts in 82 years) is pretty good odds

Sure, those odds rise when you eliminate all the people who don’t live or spend any time near an ocean. But still, a lot better odds than many things we do routinely, like drive, as experts kept reassuring us. Despite proliferating seals and attendant shark sightings, we had little reason to think it would happen here. But it did.

The long odds against such a thing are part of what hurts about this. Only six worldwide and one of them in our own town. On the ocean beach most popular with locals.

It’s shocking and horrible and we are taking it personally that it happened here. The town itself issued a statement: making it clear that we are not thinking of the victim, a young man from Revere, as a tourist, but as one of our own. “Everyone who lives in and visits Wellfleet is part of the Wellfleet community. Today we lost a member of our community, and we grieve his passing.”

In talking to people I’ve heard many “there but for the grace of God go I” stories. I have my own. I was walking that very stretch of beach just 24 hours earlier, at the previous day’s low tide. A few days before that I was swimming, at least as far out as the victim is said to have been when attacked.

There’s the sheer shock and horror of the loss of life in such a fashion. And after a beat, there’s what it will mean to the town.

If all you had to go on was the famous 1975 movie “Jaws,” you would think Wellfleet and the Outer Cape had a lot to worry about. In that story of shark attacks in a resort beach town a police chief’s attempts to protect lives by keeping people out of the water runs up against local businessmen trying to protect their bottomline.The assumption is that if you can’t go in the water in a beach town, there goes the tourist business.

Most people I’ve talked to are not worried about this. “The ocean is still beautiful. People will come to walk along the beach.” Some said that the attack will actually boost tourism by attracting the morbidly curious.

A lot of the discussion is of preventing a reccurence. One approach is to kill the sharks , as suggested last year by County Commissioner Ronald Beatty, Jr. , who blames the fatality on those who have opposed his recommendation. Or return to the methodical killing of seals by repealing the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 which was, indirectly, responsible for the fatal attack by increasing the seal population that has drawn the sharks.

Another idea is to protect swimmers by drone surveillance. (Although multiple drones whining up and down our beaches would seem to seriously pollute the beach pastorale).

Everybody of course is saying the obvious, that we need to be more careful than ever. But the victim was in fact obeying the rules on posted shark signs: swimming midday, not early or late, not near a crowd of seals, only 30-35 feet out, about as close as you can be and still catch a wave.

A casualty of the Wellfleet fatality may be our modern romanticism of wildlife, including predators. Recently Oak Bluffs’ Monster Shark Tournament was called off because of all the criticism of cruelty to animals. The killer shark could have been one of those spared by this sympathy for the predator.

I believe it was last year that there was a story in this paper of people lovingly escorting a beached shark back into the water.

A tragedy like this shark fatality may force us to acknowledge the contradiction between our altruism toward sharks (or mountain lions and grizzlies out West) and affirmation of their natural rights and our own species’ carefree recreation in the outdoors.

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