Experts: Fatal Shark Attack Could Be Result of Decades-Old Law


A shark attack on Monday afternoon took the life of a 63-year-old woman swimming off the coast of Harpswell, Maine. Julie Dimperio Holowach, a former fashion executive who was vacationing from New York City, was swimming in Casco Bay near Bailey Island when a great white attacked her, the New York Daily News reported.

Marine experts told the Portland Press-Herald the attack could be a direct result of the growing populations of seals and great white sharks along the coast of Maine.

Gregory Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries said the number of seals along the Northeast coast has greatly increased as a result of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, a federal law that forbids the killing of marine mammals.

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Meanwhile, Skomal said, the great white shark population has been rebounding as a result of a 20-year-old rule that bars fishermen from killing them.

He told the Press-Herald that the growing seal populations might be drawing the fearsome predators closer to the shore. “Seals are a favorite food of the great white,” he said.

Skomal said the shark might have mistaken Holowach for a seal because of her dark wet suit.

“Great whites are basically ambush predators that swim below their prey and then attack with a sudden rush to the surface,” he said. “Officials have said that Holowach was wearing a wet suit, and the shark might have confused her with a seal.”

NECN-TV reported Tuesday that authorities confirmed Holowach was attacked by a great white shark after examining a tooth fragment pulled from her body. She was swimming with her daughter about 20 yards from the shore when the attack occurred.

Her daughter was uninjured and swam to shore, while two kayakers nearby were able to get Holowach to the beach. Unfortunately, she was dead before the first responders were able to reach her.

Maine Marine Patrol Commissioner Patrick Keliher said at a news conference Tuesday that it is not unusual to have great white sightings in the area. There also have been various reports of seals with bite marks.

“This is a predator-prey relationship issue,” Keliher said, according to NECN. “It’s the presence of seals that are really the driver here.”

A dead seal was found Sunday on a nearby shore with bite wounds reaching 19 inches long, the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab said in a tweet.

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Local officials decided not to close down the beaches, but they emphasized the importance of taking the proper safety precautions when going out in the water, the Press-Herald reported.

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Harpswell Recreation Director Gina Perow said the city is “advising swimmers to use the utmost caution and recommend that they not go further than waist-deep. Be especially aware of your surroundings while swimming or recreating in the water and avoid going near seals or schools of fish.”

James Sulikowski, a shark researcher and professor at Arizona State University, warned swimmers to stay away from seals and areas with lots of schools of fish, NECN-TV reported.

“Seals are going to feed on those schools of fish, so if you see a sick and injured seal that’s swimming oddly and doing weird things, stay away from them,” Sulikowski said.

Some other basic precautions include staying out of the water at dawn and dusk and avoiding wearing anything shiny while swimming, the TV station reported.

The Maine Marine Patrol has been searching the area for great whites, WCSH-TV reported. If anyone spots a shark, the patrol is asking that they provide location information and GPS coordinates, if available.

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Samantha Burton graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor’s in English. She was a news editor for the university’s paper, The Branding Iron.
Samantha Burton graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor’s in English. She was a news editor for the university’s paper, The Branding Iron.