Great white sharks detected off Rye beaches. Fire chief says ocean 'still extremely safe'

RYE — Six tagged great white sharks were detected off beaches in Rye last year, all but one of which swam north from Cape Cod, according to data compiled by the University of New Hampshire and the Atlantic Shark Conservancy.

With the 2024 beach season now here, Rye Fire Chief Mark Cotreau updated town Select Board members Monday night on the shark detection efforts, which began in the summer of 2022. Shark buoys located off the shores of Sawyer Beach, Cable Beach, Foss Beach, and Wallis Beach can detect any tagged great white shark passing through ocean waters within a 1,500-foot radius of the buoys.

Data on great white sharks' presence in Rye waters is being collected and discussed. Officials say beachgoers shouldn't be alarmed.
Data on great white sharks' presence in Rye waters is being collected and discussed. Officials say beachgoers shouldn't be alarmed.

The World Wildlife Fund reports the world’s great white shark population is at vulnerable status. The largest known predatory fish in the world, great white sharks can weigh upwards of 4,000 to 7,000 pounds and can grow up to 20 feet long, although the average sharks are smaller; females average 15-16 feet and males 11-13 feet, according to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Should Rye, NH beachgoers be concerned about sharks?

Cotreau said the tagged great white shark activity along Rye waters is “really well in the expected range,” and he will continue going to the beaches this summer. But in the future, buoys that alert lifeguards and public safety personnel in real time of a shark swimming within close distance could be considered by the town.

“Swimming in the water is still extremely safe,” Cotreau said in a Tuesday interview. “There is a very, very, very low chance of an interaction with a shark, from what the experts are telling us. Nobody in the industry is recommending that folks in New Hampshire curtail their beach activities. Nobody is recommending that. We’re monitoring that. If that changes, we'll let people know.”

The town initiative began in response to the July 2020 death of a New York City woman after a rare shark attack while she was swimming off Bailey Island, the first fatal shark attack in Maine history. Each buoy deployed in Rye, visible in the Atlantic Ocean from the four beaches and bobbing at around 25 feet at high tide, has a sensor hanging about four feet into the water.

The town of Rye has purchased four buoys that can track the movement of tagged great white sharks within 1,500 feet of the buoy's locations. The buoys compile the information about the shark, such as its location and time spent within the designated distance.
The town of Rye has purchased four buoys that can track the movement of tagged great white sharks within 1,500 feet of the buoy's locations. The buoys compile the information about the shark, such as its location and time spent within the designated distance.

What was learned from 2023 shark data in Rye?

In 2023, sharks were detected off Sawyer Beach, Cable Beach and Wallis Beach, while none were detected off Foss Beach, according to the town. Last year’s tagged great white shark activity off the Rye beaches represents an increase over 2022, when a single 12-foot-long male was detected by the Foss Beach buoy.

The first great white shark, a 10-foot female named Celia, was detected off Cable Beach the afternoon of July 28, 2023. On Sept. 23, 9.5-foot female Peg was detected off Cable Beach and Sawyers Beach, followed by 9-foot male Pete on Sept. 30 off the same two beaches. Guinevere and Reese, both 9-foot females, were detected on Oct. 4 at Wallis Beach and Cable Beach, and Punk, an 11-foot male great white shark, swam near the Sawyers Beach buoy on Oct. 5.

Reese was originally tagged in South Carolina, while the other five sharks were tagged by researchers in Cape Cod. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy reported its team encountered 80 sharks during a five-month stretch in Cape Cod last year, though that doesn’t account for all sharks in the area, according to the Cape Cod Times.

Cape Cod Times: Cape Cod shark researchers release 2023 findings. How many sharks did they encounter?

How many more sharks are in NH area waters?

Are other un-tagged sharks swimming out within a few thousand feet of Seacoast beaches? It’s likely, though it’s unknown how close they are to the shores.

“We have to remember that all these buoys are counting interactions with tagged sharks, which are the minority of sharks,” Cotreau added. “The majority of sharks are not tagged. We want to make sure the public is aware of what we’re doing. We don’t want to seem like we’re being alarmists because frankly the data that we’re finding is not unexpected and it’s not a high volume of sharks. The sharks are in the waters. We want to have a balanced approach as we look at the data over the years.”

At Monday’s Select Board meeting, Cotreau stated that other tagged marine species, including sturgeons, striped bass, herring and cod, led to “thousands” of detections among the four buoys.

Rye residents share concerns about sharks

Rye has placed four buoys that can track the potential movement of tagged great white sharks off town beaches.
Rye has placed four buoys that can track the potential movement of tagged great white sharks off town beaches.

Alehson Street resident Joseph Marttila surfs and snorkels locally and shared his concerns about sharks near Rye beaches at the Select Board meeting. He said he went surfing with his children in October, right around the time when three of the tagged great white sharks were detected.

Marttila said sharks could be in the region to feed on the seal population and suggested the town invest in tourniquet kits for the beaches in case of emergency.

“I get worried about it. I know a lot of people are. I know the odds are pretty low of being attacked by a shark. But, someone always wins the lottery,” he said.

What it costs to collect data on sharks

The cost of a real-time detection shark buoy costs upwards of $17,000, in addition to another potential $2,000 for the tracking dashboard, according to marine biologist Gregory Skomal with Massachusetts Marine Fisheries. The current shark buoys cost approximately $2,500 each, also accounting for the process of dropping them in the ocean.

“Although we have been deploying them for several years, we still consider them in beta testing because we have experienced many problems ranging from hardware to software failures,” Skomal shared in a report to Cotreau. “Moreover, given that only a fraction of sharks (are) tagged, the deployment of a live receiver can give the public a false sense of security.”

Rye Town Administrator Matthew Scruton says live-transmitting buoys “come with high costs and logistical challenges” but could be considered in the future in a possible joint venture.

“Our current focus remains on leveraging the historical data collected and analyzed by our partners to enhance our understanding of shark activity in the region. Implementing real-time monitoring buoys is a significant financial undertaking that goes beyond our current town budget,” Scruton said Tuesday. “The town is open to discussions with our residents, other Seacoast communities, and partners to see if a regional need exists for real-time monitoring.”

The data from the Rye shark buoys is collected annually in November and processed by the University of New Hampshire and the Atlantic Shark Conservancy.

"The buoys we have in place provide invaluable historical data that allows us and our partners to monitor and better understand shark activity off our coast,” Scruton added. “While the buoys don't offer real-time alerts, the data we gather annually, with the help of our partners, plays a crucial role in enhancing safety and conservation efforts."

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Sharks detected off Rye NH beaches: Chief says ocean is 'still safe'

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