On April 22, Marianne Walsh of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC) spoke to the Log Lunch community about the growing number of white sharks in New England’s waters. Recognizing the ways in which the presence of sharks has indelibly marked coastal New England, Walsh sought to promote a vision for how we can coexist with and conserve the habitats of white sharks.
Walsh, a self-proclaimed shark fanatic, became obsessed with sharks during a childhood trip to the Bahamas. Growing up, she watched Shark Week religiously. In college, she began to seek career opportunities that would allow her to research and support these fascinating creatures.
Inspired by the research of Dr. Greg Skomal, the first researcher to tag white sharks off the coast of Cape Cod after a white shark was stuck on an island off of the Cape, Walsh took on the role of Education Director for the AWSC. Her work marries research with community outreach, raising public awareness of shark activity and behavior while building support and funding for the organization’s research.
One of the first projects undertaken during her tenure was a shark movement study, where researchers put acoustic telemetry tags on sharks, which then passed through sensors and recorded movement “like an EZ pass system.” The tags are minimally invasive and record the date, time, and location of shark movement. AWSC also began an ongoing population study, which looks for distinctive marks or scarring on sharks to keep track of individuals.
Much of Walsh’s work involves communicating to the public about AWSC’s research and the importance of white sharks in the local ecosystem. In the wake of a tragic fatal shark bite on Cape Cod in 2018, building public knowledge about shark behavior is more important than ever. Walsh reflected on how momentum for shark research stalled as community members hoped to focus more on public safety. As a result, the AWSC worked to create unified messaging across different towns and beaches on Cape Cod.
She also hopes to raise awareness of the primary reason that white sharks are increasingly present on the New England coast: the movement of harbor seals. Noting how a 19th-century bounty on seals drastically reduced their population in the North Atlantic, Walsh explained that new federal legislation protecting seals has allowed their population to rapidly grow back to previous levels. Now, the growing presence of seals has led sharks to swim in shallow waters that are largely used for recreational purposes, raising questions about how people should coexist with these impressive but feared creatures.
Following the 2018 incident, Jennifer Jackman of Salem State University conducted a study on the public perception of white sharks on Cape Cod. She interviewed locals, fishermen, and tourists, and found that despite some fear, all groups hoped to share the ocean with sharks and accept some inconvenience so that the species can continue to thrive. Recognizing that public support for the animals still exists has been crucial for the Conservancy, allowing them to move forward with research while still attending to public safety.
Walsh concluded by answering a number of questions from the audience, while also encouraging the Log Lunch community to get involved with the AWSC, through internships, volunteering, or educational programs.
The community enjoyed a Passover-inspired meal of matzo ball soup, zucchini kugel, scarlet beet salad, and maple sandwich cookies. Potatoes, onions, and beets were provided by Mighty Food Farms.
BY SARAH JANE O’CONNOR, 2022.5
Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.