Jim Britt, communications director with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, holds a new flag Tuesday at Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth that will be raised at Maine beaches if sharks are detected nearby. The flag was flown for the first time Friday at Crescent Beach State Park after a great white named Tuck was detected offshore. Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press

Harpswell officials hoisted a flag intended to warn beachgoers if a shark was spotted nearby just twice in its first summer under the new flag alert system, adopted one year after a fatal shark attack off the coast of Bailey Island.

In late May, Harpswell voted to raise a purple flag with a white shark silhouette at Mitchell Field, Mackerel Cove and Cedar Beach when there is a reported shark sighting within a quarter mile. The flag, also used in Maine state beaches and throughout Cape Cod, is intended to advise beachgoers to swim at their own risk.

On July 11, there was an unconfirmed shark sighting in the Bailey Island and Pond Island area, according to the town’s website. One month later, on Aug. 16, a shark was spotted about a half mile south of Bailey Island.

Arthur Howe, Harpswell’s fire administrator and emergency management agent, said he thought the town might have “a half dozen sightings over the season, but I’m happy with the low number.”

Howe said someone captured photos of one of the suspected sharks, which Howe sent to a scientist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources. He said the scientist believed the shark was a basking shark, which typically grow to about 22-29 feet in length and eat zooplankton.

Maine is home to eight different species of sharks, including great white sharks — also known as white sharks — which are considered potentially more dangerous to humans because they swim closer to the coast and feed on marine mammals.

Upon Harpswell’s adoption of the flag, town officials and scientists alike stressed that it’s not intended to scare people or indicate Maine waters are suddenly swarming with sharks. Sharks do, however, travel in the Gulf of Maine, most likely because they’re drawn to the the state’s healthy seal population.

“Sharks aren’t new to the state, but the horrible tragedy last year raised everyone’s awareness,” Gary Best, state park regional manager at the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, told The Times Record in May. “We strive to keep all of our beaches as safe and enjoyable as possible. Water safety and public safety is an evolution and we continue to adapt and improve.”

Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, a retired fashion executive and summer resident of Harpswell, died on July 27, 2020, after being attacked by a shark while swimming about 20 yards offshore near her home on Bailey Island, the Portland Press Herald reported. The shark was confirmed as a great white shark based on tooth fragments. 

There were three other reported shark sightings in the week following that attack, the Portland Press Herald reported. One was spotted near Cousins Island in Yarmouth and the Maine Department of Marine Resources received two reports of shark sightings near Popham Beach in Phippsburg. Although marine patrol couldn’t verify the sightings, beachgoers were urged to stay out of the water.

Though the flag was only hoisted twice over the summer, Howe said he believes the simple system was effective in “educating and engaging with the public, and gave them another tool to make the determination of when and how they use the local waters.”

“I’m hoping the program is here to stay,” said Howe. “The sharks aren’t going to disappear from our waters and they may increase over time. As the climate changes and the waters warm, the likelihood is we may see more seals over time.”

To better understand how many sharks are in Maine, the Maine Department of Marine Resources partners with the New England White Shark Research Consortium to track white sharks off the coast of Maine.

In late May and early June, the group placed 32 acoustic monitoring devices, or “receivers,” which record signals from acoustic transmitters, or “tags,” attached to sharks. The group is waiting to retrieve the receivers and doesn’t have all the data stored on the receivers, but Matthew Davis, a Maine Department of Marine Resources marine resource scientist involved in the shark monitoring program, said the team’s receivers had detected more than a dozen white sharks within the Gulf of Maine as of mid-July.

“We won’t have a complete picture of the season until we pull the receivers over the next couple months, at which point we can begin to analyze the data more thoroughly,” said Davis. “Between the early-season data from this year and last year’s receivers, which were only deployed from late-August to November, we’ve detected approximately two-dozen tagged white sharks.”

The DMR in collaboration with Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, and James Sulikowski of Arizona State University, placed 11 receivers along the coast between Wells and Popham Beach which detected 16 sharks in 2020 between late July and late November, 14 of which were white sharks, according to the department’s website.

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