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6 September 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 3:55pm

How shark attacks are pitting US conservatives against liberals

In Cape Cod, right-wing demagogues are using the politics of fear to demand a mass cull of sharks and seals. 

By Louis Amis

One day in September last year, John Kartsounis was gazing down from a plane window at Cape Cod, the sandy peninsula that juts from the state of Massachusetts into the North Atlantic in the shape of a clenched arm. It was a clear day, and he thought he could make out the public beach where he often surfed. Later, he discovered that his daughter had been there that afternoon while a man was killed in the shallows by a great white shark.

When we met at his home in the town of Wellfleet, he referred to that day as “Cape Cod’s 9/11.” This wasn’t an analogy he drew lightly, since Kartsounis is a flight attendant for American Airlines, and had known several of the crew – Boston-based, like him – on Flight 11, which hit the North Tower. He meant that this event was also a watershed, after which formerly routine and joyful aspects of his life became shadowed by fear.

A century of unrestrained exploitation of the regional fisheries had made the waters off Cape Cod sterile and safe for generations of freely amphibious seaside life. Now, thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the grey seal population has triumphantly rebounded, drawing sharks close to shore. Sightings and a couple of non-fatal bite incidents started adding up in 2012, but Kartsounis and many others had clung to what he ruefully called “a false sense of security.” For them, the death of the 26-year-old visitor, Arthur Medici, brought a long idyll to a sudden end.

It turned out that the aftermath also fit the pattern of 9/11, demonstrating once again how statistically low-risk but viscerally alarming threats – especially when those threats come from perceived foreign elements or new arrivals – are ripe for demagoguery. Two days after Medici’s death, Howie Carr, a talk-radio host in nearby Boston, took time out from railing against the “Mueller witch-hunt” to warn of “the growing menace” on Cape Cod, being abetted by “environmental extremists.” By early August of this year, a Cape radio host, Patrick Desmarais, could veer between his circumspect attitude to gun control in the wake of massacres in Texas and Ohio, and his unshakeable certainty on the shark question. “I’m a cull-the-seals-and-sharks guy,” he told his listeners. “I don’t want to be surrounded by these dangerous animals.”

The guest on both shows was County Commissioner Ronald Beaty Jr., a right-wing Republican who rode Donald Trump’s coat-tails into office in traditionally liberal Cape Cod, despite having once served federal prison time for mailing death-threats to George H.W. Bush. Beaty had been ridiculed after calling for a pre-emptive onslaught against the sharks and seals; now he was the Cassandra of the tragedy in Wellfleet. The Cape was “completely surrounded” by “an invasion of sharks,” he told Desmarais. “If another person – especially if it’s a child – gets mangled and mauled and destroyed and killed again, then politics be damned!”

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No one has been mangled or destroyed so far this summer, but beaches are being closed due to shark sightings on a daily basis. Beach attendance in June was down 10 per cent on last year, and June and July saw a small drop-off in accommodation rentals, a sector that had enjoyed year-on-year growth; the Chamber of Commerce has not yet released its August figures. Negative trends are in any case difficult to pin conclusively on fear of sharks, but rumours abound of significant losses in overall tourism revenue. A number of scientific and policy studies addressing the issue are also due for release later in the year, limiting local authorities in the meantime to raising awareness and providing emergency stop-the-bleed kits at beaches. In September, the lifeguards vacate their towers.

John Kartsounis and other “concerned citizens” have entered into a loose association with Beaty and the Seal Abatement Coalition, an interest group based on the nearby island of Nantucket, to lobby for an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which protects the seals for their inherent “international significance,” up to the “maximum productivity” of their population. The group has also championed various speculative defensive measures – one proposal would have installed a network of air-raid siren-like devices at beaches – which have been summarily rejected by every relevant public official aside from Beaty.

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The SAC is led by two elderly men: Peter Howell, a fisherman who blames declining fish stocks on seals, and Crocker Snow, who seems to have nursed an Ahab-like vendetta against the grey seal ever since Muskeget Island, a small, wind-blasted outcrop that he privately owns, was overrun by a heaving colony 15 years ago. At a presentation before the County Commissioners, arranged by Beaty in July, Snow played a short documentary featuring himself, titled Unintended Consequences. The seals are “back with a big vengeance,” he explains in the film, which sets footage of their unruly behaviour against a soundtrack of mournful strings:

“The animals are everywhere… When you see these seals, birthing and breeding in the way they are, with the fights going on between the bulls and the calves, with the bull that wants to breed and goes up to a cow that’s still nursing its pup, the bull would sometimes grab it and just kill it,” Snow narrates. “To see that kind of activity, of this very giant and now very numerous species, it’s pretty obvious that it’s impacting the rest of the very vulnerable bird life, animal life, and other life on Muskeget.”

Kartsounis told me that he is “not a culler”; he simply wants to see the options looked into. Beaty has stated repeatedly that culling is inevitable, sooner or later. Meanwhile, the group is united in their view of “the environmental extremists,” whom they perceive to be pushing a “pro-shark agenda” behind closed doors, loyal only to their research and fundraising. Their anger focuses on the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a local non-profit taking advantage of the unprecedented opportunities to observe and tag sharks in shallow water. The Conservancy’s public safety message, often blithely delivered, is that responsible humans have no choice but to surrender the habitat, to what Kartsounis called “a Jurassic state.”

The campaign to amend the MMPA has some hope of success under the current federal government, which recently weakened the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, another landmark piece of animal rights legislation from the same period. The group’s rhetoric, by some combination of design and osmosis, tends to echo that of the Trump movement, pushing buttons familiar from the polarised debates over immigration, terrorism and the environment. Trump himself, according to his own tweets and the testimony of Stormy Daniels, also seems to have long harboured an intense personal animosity towards sharks.

Sharon Young, senior strategist for marine life at the Humane Society and a 40-year resident of Cape Cod, explained to me that the kind of regulated culling that most Americans accept for species like deer would have no effect on a trans-boundary population of some 500,000 seals between here and Newfoundland. Only a return to the industrial-scale slaughter of previous eras could alter the equation. She spoke of Cape Cod as a unique front-row seat to the ever-changing patterns of the wild: “You can watch storms coming in for miles. That sense of the union of the sky and the sea and the gulls, and the seals barking on the rocks. Sharks are part of that, too. We want you to be safe, but do you do that by killing everything that could possibly hurt you? If we think about this, another tourist economy, a blue economy, can grow up around them.”

I took an excursion with one already testing that proposition, captain Darren Saletta of Monomoy Sports Fishing. With the aid of a spotter plane, we found seven or eight great whites along a ten-mile stretch of coast: dark blurs resolving slowly into the dreaded outline and then, in brief moments of clarity, into glossy, streamlined, vital presences. They fanned their muscular tails indifferently, some within 50 metres of a crowded public beach, where no one was swimming. Such “shark adventures” are costly operations, severely constrained by the light infrastructure along a coast that is itself protected national seashore.

Saletta started working fishing boats at 16, earned a degree in marine science, and spent thousands of hours surfing the Cape. He now refrained from surfing – “a huge part of my life, and soul” – between June and October. “We’re a community of watermen,” he said. “We swim, we fish, we sail, we dive, we surf.” It was “absolutely nauseating” to him to think that his son would not inherit his way of life. “But nobody gives a shit. I keep hearing that it’s their habitat – but humans came from the ocean, too.”

It may be that, with a well-timed appearance on Fox News, Ronald Beaty will spur the president into launching the War on Seals. Or perhaps drones and other emerging technology will soon make Cape Cod safe for aquatic recreation once more. Either way, the habits of fear, mistrust, and tribalism will continue to cruise the currents of American life, feeding opportunistically.

Louis Amis is a freelance journalist who has written for the New Statesman, the Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books