Sharks in New England

A seal lounges on rocks Thursday in Casco Bay off Portland, Maine.

PORTLAND, Maine • Seals are thriving off the Northeast coast thanks to decades of protections, and that victory for wildlife has brought a consequence for humans — more encounters with sharks.

Seals are a favorite prey of large sharks such as the great white. The death this week of swimmer Julie Dimperio Holowach, who was killed by a great white off Harpswell, Maine, might have happened because the shark mistook her for a seal, authorities said.

Swimmers off the New England states have learned to be more mindful in recent years due to a spate of sightings of great whites, the apex predator made famous in the movie “Jaws.” A shark that killed a man off Cape Cod in 2018 was also believed to be a great white. That was the first fatal shark attack in Massachusetts in more than eight decades, while the death of Holowach on Monday was the first documented fatal shark attack in Maine history.

“They’re not vindictive or mad or angry or preferring human flesh. They just occasionally make a mistake. And it’s tragic when they do,” said Greg Skomal, a shark specialist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “As we restore top predators, the potential for these interactions could increase.”

Incidents of shark bites remain rare, especially in Northeastern waters. The International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida lists only 10 unprovoked shark attacks off New England, according to records that go back to 1837. The majority of documented shark attacks in the U.S. happen off Florida, and internationally, warm weather countries such as South Africa and Australia have higher totals than most.

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