By Kathleen Downey
---- — Amesbury’s Cynthia Wigren is on a mission.
The president and co-founder of the recently formed Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC), Wigren is intent on bringing awareness and understanding — while dispelling harmful myths — about the Atlantic Ocean’s most fearsome fish: the great white shark.
Wigren and her fellow co-founders launched the nonprofit organization late last year after an eye-opening trip to South Africa exposed them to the plight of the shark — one of the world’s most misunderstood animals, they say.
Based on Cape Cod, where Wigren’s colleagues live and Wigren resides part-time, the goal of the conservancy is to educate the public about the role of the animal, to inspire conservation efforts and to support scientific research on the great white shark.
An “apex predator,” the great white shark is critical to keeping the ocean healthy, Wigren said.
As the great white and other shark species disappear, the ocean’s predator-prey balance becomes disrupted, compromising the health of the world’s oceans and the survival of other marine species, she added.
As the majority of the oxygen humans breathe comes from the oceans, that survival becomes imperiled when our oceans are unhealthy, Wigren said.
Still more than 100 million sharks are killed globally each year by humans. Overfishing, habitat destruction and trophy hunting all contribute to the shark’s demise. But a culinary preference is also behind a stunning number of deaths, according to Wigren.
“Finning is the gruesome practice of slicing off the fins of a live shark, then allowing the shark to drop to the ocean’s depths to suffocate, bleed out, and die” for the purpose of making shark fin soup, she said.
“When you see something that is so feared in an incredibly vulnerable position ... your perception changes from fearing the potential harm they are capable of causing us, to acknowledging the harm we are inflicting upon them,” she added.
That’s where the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy comes in. By educating the public and working to dispel myths and fears about the species, the group seeks to grow respect for the shark that other predators receive, such as lions and tigers, and stop the idea that sharks are “monsters.”
Humans must be aware of how their water activities and recreation affect the animals that live in the ocean, they say. Learning about the behavior of great white sharks can help to protect humans — and the sharks, Wigren said.
“Great white sharks are not man-eaters,” Wigren said, which she calls one of the biggest misconceptions about the species. Great whites do not target humans as their prey, she added, and they typically bite due to a case of mistaken identity.
A shark will bite, then release once he realizes his unintended prey, she added, but because humans are so fragile, the encounters can be fatal.
Fortunately, shark attacks are relatively rare. A 2011 study reveals that 12 people were killed worldwide by sharks. But in that same year, 11,417 sharks were killed by humans — each hour.
But Wigren does not downplay tragic human-shark encounters. Preventing such tragedies from occurring is of paramount importance to AWSC.
They have cultivated relationships with researchers throughout the world. Much of the information gained about great white sharks, including their breeding habits and nursing sites, is through the scientific practice of tagging.
In this “tag-team” effort, expert fishermen and scientists working together — from a small boat — use a modified harpoon gun to insert a satellite or acoustic tag beneath the animal’s dorsal fin. These tags lasts last between one and four years and allow scientists to track the shark’s migration patterns.
With a goal of inspiring future generations to care about our ocean ecosystem’s “keystone species,” AWSC has developed a Shark Activity Book, geared to youth, ages 4 through 15, which can be used as part of a classroom lesson.
A part-time resident of Orleans, Wigren has a background in wildlife management. The AWSC has paired with Massachusetts Audubon of Wellfleet and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History to offer summer camp scholarship programs at Cape locations.
One of the group’s goals is to establish a protected area for great white sharks in the deep waters off the Lower Cape.
Sharks have been citizens of the world’s oceans for more than 400 million years, Wigren said. “They have perfectly evolved and adapted to their environment. The only threat to their existence is us.”