Technology is One Option for OuterCape Beaches

Fiber-optic network, new sonar buoy could be used in Seashore

WELLFLEET — When he witnessed a shark attack on a seal a couple of years ago at a Truro beach near where his children had been surfing, Steve Johnston thought there had to be a better way to detect sharks and get the word to beachgoers.

Johnston, the CEO for the nonprofit technology company OpenCape, started talking with George Price, the Cape Cod National Seashore superintendent at the time, about bringing fiber optics to the remote beaches in the park where cellphone communication was virtually nonexistent.

“What we looked at prior to the (shark) attacks and fatality was how to make the Seashore, one of the greatest national parks in the world, accessible,” Johnston said. OpenCape owns and operates a fiber-optic network serving government, businesses and residents of Southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the Islands. Johnston believes that running fiber-optic cable to five or more beaches within the Seashore and using small-cell technology to distribute the signal along the shoreline would not only solve the communications issues but would be an information highway that could be used for other purposes, like high-speed internet for the park’s science and research center in North Truro.

After the fatal shark attack a week and a half ago, Johnston believed the greater need was for technology that could detect sharks and broadcast alerts, and he found an Australian company called Smart Marine Systems which produces a marine monitoring platform known as Clever Buoy.

“We were trying to find something that was acceptable in an environmentally sensitive area and could be deployed in the next year because we don’t have two or three years,” Johnston said.

Clever Buoy uses a series of transducers anchored to the bottom of the ocean that broadcasts multiple sonar beams upward. As the signal is reflected back, an algorithm looks for a pattern that matches the swimming motion of a shark. Once detected, a signal is relayed through a buoy overhead to lifeguards, public safety officials, researchers, even the general public.

The protection is not intended for the length of the massive beaches that run along the Outer Cape, but could cover designated, lifeguard-protected areas. Two buoys and eight transducers would cover about a 500- to 600-yard-long stretch of beach, Smart Marine Systems founder Craig Anderson said. He is currently in Newport, California, where his Clever Buoy system is being tested to protect a 1,000-yard stretch of beach following a shark attack on a swimmer in 2016.

The Cape’s regional shark working group looked at Clever Buoy in 2016, but decided not to pursue it because of the cost, estimated at $200,000 to cover Nauset Beach for the summer. Plus there was some criticism by Australian government officials that the system had trouble recognizing shark shapes in rough seas, and provided protection for a relatively small area compared with the cost.

In a phone interview, Anderson said the technology had evolved since early models and was robust and accurate. He said the prices had come down and would continue to drop with economies of scale and development of cheaper hardware. He said most municipalities preferred to rent the equipment rather than own it, and he estimated the cost of covering a 500- to 600-yard beach at $20,000 a month.

Cynthia Wigren, president and co-founder of the Atlantic Shark Conservancy, said the shark working group had received a new proposal from Clever Buoy and confirmed the price had come down.

Johnston estimated the cost of running the fiber-optic cable to five beaches at $400,000 to $500,000. He said the Cape had a unique opportunity, with its marine research facilities and blue economy, to find technological solutions.

“Any solution is expensive,” he said. “We’re just trying to be proactive in offering solutions.”

— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.