BIDDEFORD — Marine researchers have deployed underwater cameras in hopes of documenting great white sharks off the coast of southern Maine for the first time.

The effort is part of the first study dedicated to learning about the habits of the sharks near Maine. Scientists say great whites – the world’s largest predatory fish – have increased in number in the Atlantic Ocean and will continue to do so in the Gulf of Maine.

Two cameras, each attached to a crate of chum to attract large fish, were deployed by University of New England professor James Sulikowski and undergraduates two weeks ago near Stratton Island, 2 miles from Old Orchard Beach. The island was chosen because a radio receiver that Sulikowski placed on a nearby buoy detected a tagged great white shark last fall.

“The goal is to get a better understanding of the ecosystem and what white sharks are coming in, and to find out how prevalent they are,” said Sulikowski, a marine biologist.

UNE undergraduates Jasmine Nyce, center, Abigail Hayne, behind Nyce, and Jen Knotek work together this month to lower a baited camera into the water near Stratton Island, a seal hangout about 2 miles from Old Orchard Beach, as part of a great white shark study. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Greg Skomal, a senior scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said great white sharks have been on the rebound since being protected from harvesting in U.S. waters in 1991. The extent of the population near the Maine coast is unclear, Skomal said, but scientists are beginning to see patterns among great whites that travel through the Gulf of Maine and as far north as the Canadian coastline.

“Part of the white shark puzzle includes the Gulf of Maine,” Skomal said. “To what extent are they exploiting the Gulf of Maine and the resources that are there? James can fill in some of the blanks that we can’t get to. It’s interesting for people managing fish populations and folks interested in conserving the species. And it’s interesting for those who go to beaches.”

For the past decade, Skomal has tagged and studied great whites off the coast of Massachusetts. This summer he is tracking 134 of them using acoustic and satellite transmitters he affixed to their dorsal fins.

Great white sightings are frequent on Cape Cod, where Skomal has tagged many of the sharks. Several beaches on the Cape have been closed temporarily this month because of confirmed shark sightings, including Nauset Light Beach, which was closed July 16 when a great white shark was seen eating a seal 200 yards off shore.

Since 2013, there have been an average of 12 beach closures a summer along the 40-mile Cape Cod National Seashore because of great white sightings, said Leslie Reynolds, chief ranger of the National Seashore.

Sulikowski began collaborating with Skomal last year by placing radio receivers on buoys near Old Orchard Beach and Wood Island, just off Biddeford. One receiver picked up a signal from a 12-foot female white shark near Stratton Island in September. A year earlier, Sulikowksi accidentally picked up a signal from another great white with a receiver he was using to track sturgeon outside of Kennebunkport.

Sulikowski’s video cameras – one placed at a depth of 30 feet and another at 100 feet – recorded video for four hours two weeks ago and for an hour last week. Although the first two videos did not reveal any sharks, Sulikowksi plans to repeat the procedure of deploying the cameras attached to crates of chum once a week into the early winter.

He acknowledges that the approach may seem like searching for “a needle in a haystack,” but the great white shark detected by radio signal last fall has him hopeful that he will capture one on video. He also hopes to get video of other sharks, such as the porbeagle, mako and basking shark.

“This work with underwater cameras is being done in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York, but no one (else) is doing it in Maine,” Sulikowski said. “We would like to deploy more cameras and receivers. We’re waiting on a funding source.”

Professor James Sulikowski talks with UNE undergraduate students working summer jobs as research assistants as they prepare to deploy baited underwater cameras for a great white shark study. They chose a spot where a radio receiver detected a tagged great white last fall. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Stratton Island is significant to Sulikowski’s efforts because it is a common lounging site for gray seals. The seals have been protected in U.S. waters since 1972 and their numbers are on the rebound, according to a 2017 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Where we’ve put the cameras is a key location because Stratton Island is a seal haul, they hang out there,” Sulikowski said. “And where there are a lot of seals, there are a lot of great white sharks. It’s typical behavior that they find a food source and then exploit it. As the seal population in Maine gets bigger, we want to have more resources available here to study white sharks, because we are going to be seeing more white sharks. We are hoping to be ahead of the curve, to help with public awareness, to engage the public. It’s an important resource. White sharks mean a healthy ecosystem – they’re the apex predator.”

Skomal is confident that Sulikowski’s team will collect evidence of great white sharks in the Gulf of Maine.

“Don’t let the proximity to land make you think (Sulikowski’s cameras) won’t see them,” Skomal said. “If (great whites) are there, he will see them. In Cape Cod, we’ve had them swim within 10 feet of shore. That’s not common. A quarter mile is very common.”

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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