After the fatal shark attack off Bailey Island in 2020, the Maine Department of Marine Resources wanted to know more about the great white sharks that swim through Maine’s coastal waters.
To help fill in the gaps, the department has tapped Matt Davis, a lobster survey scientist with a background in shark biology, to be the state government’s first ever researcher dedicated to studying the apex predator. Davis’ job is to figure out how and where sharks spend their time in the Gulf of Maine.
It’s an area of research that wasn’t considered a priority before, but Davis, a cheerful 31-year-old scientist based in Boothbay, is excited to take his past experience with the fish in Florida and apply it to Maine, where relatively little is known about their habits.
“There is a lot of shark activity that we just don’t realize is here because people haven’t been looking,” Davis said.
Most of his work is running the state’s shark monitoring program, which began in the wake of the state’s first fatal shark attack in 2020.
The state now has about 30 acoustic receivers in the water that collect data when sharks with monitoring tags swim within a couple hundred yards of them. They’re largely spread out in southern Maine, from Ogunquit to the Sheepscot River.
There is also a pair of receivers that send out real-time shark detections off Popham Beach and in Saco Bay, giving life guards and public safety officials a chance to know immediately if a great white — if it is tagged — is nearby.
Davis’ goal is to piece together where sharks spend most of their time when they’re in Maine waters and then to use that information to help keep people safe.
“Matt is expanding our knowledge of white sharks in Maine and over time his work will keep the public informed about the presence of sharks along our coast,” said Patrick Keliher, DMR Commissioner.
Davis grew up in the decidedly less sharky Indiana but always wanted to study the sea. He went to Purdue University and got two degrees, one in wildlife management and another in fisheries and aquatic sciences. He then went on to the University of West Florida to learn shark biology.
In Florida, he worked for the state’s fish and wildlife commission and helped run a federal shark survey in the Pensacola area.
About three years ago he got a job at DMR coordinating lobster surveys. As interest in sharks started to emerge, he was tapped to do some great white research on the side. That continued until last year, when the department created a new position that he stepped into earlier this year.
“My hand went up instantly,” he said. “It’s a bit of a passion for me.”
The state’s shark program is still in its early days. Davis only has about a year and a half of data from the receivers, which only cover a portion of the state’s long coastline.
That makes it hard to tell if what Davis is seeing is an anomaly or truly representative of how great whites, a species that is known to migrate from Florida to Canada, spend their time in Maine.
So far, it seems that sharks, like tourists, like Maine best in the summer. July and August were the two most active months for detections in 2021, with 13 in July and 18 in August.
The highest concentration so far has been just west of Popham beach at Hermit Island, where receivers detected tagged white sharks 18 times last year. Overall, 29 different tagged sharks were detected by the state in 2021.
While those numbers may not seem high, Davis notes that detections are only accomplished if sharks are tagged and are swimming fairly close to the receivers. The fact that they’ve counted this many is, to Davis, a sign that sharks are in Maine in large numbers.
“We are seeing a fair bit of activity, and it’s important to realize that not even a fraction of the shark population in the Gulf of Maine have been tagged,” he said.
The state’s focus so far has been putting receivers in areas where people often go into the water. All of the receivers right now are close to shore, but Davis hopes eventually, the state will be able to get more monitoring programs farther east and farther offshore to places such as Seal Island off Matinicus, where it is expected there are lots of sharks following seals.
DMR isn’t at the point where it can cover both bustling beaches and parts of the gulf where sharks are suspected to be congregating. The state also relies on other states or nonprofit research entities to tag sharks, though it may eventually start tagging sharks once it has a better idea of where they tend to go in Maine.
Stepping into the shark scientist role at DMR has been a bit of a change for Davis. He went from one of the highest priority species, lobster, to one that is full of unknowns in Maine.
But he hopes to help Maine have a better understanding of the great whites.
“It’s a little bit of a black box,” Davis said. “We’re still learning how white sharks are dispersed through the inshore Gulf of Maine.”