Sunday, September 4, 2016


It was a thresher, which weighed a little over 150 pounds.  All things considered, it was typical of the threshers that we’ve been seeing off Long Island over the past few years.

A rebound in menhaden abundance has brought big schools of that important baitfish into our nearshore waters.  
Those menhaden, in turn, have tolled in a host of predators ranging from bluefish to humpback whales.  Thresher sharks, many of them about the same size as the one caught by Governor Cuomo, frequently harry the menhaden schools.

Anglers regularly hook and land such threshers well within sight of shore.  Some of those threshers were a lot bigger—maybe three times the size—of the one caught by the Governor.  Some were a bit smaller.  But most have been about the same size.

And because thresher sharks are a good-eating fish—many anglers, including myself, think threshers taste as good or better than makos—quite a few of those that are caught are brought home.  Governor Cuomo decided to bring his shark home, too.

A picture of the Governor posing with the shark appeared on Twitter and in local newspapers, and that was when Andrew Cuomo experienced his Cecil the Lion moment.  Newspapers from as far away as England carried articles criticizing his catch, while many of the responses to his Twitter post demonstrated that people are always ready to show an excess of outrage about things that they know nothing about.

Locally, the award for worst headline should go to a New York City publication called the Gothamist, which announced that “Big Man Andrew Cuomo Kills “Vulnerable” Large Animal For Sport.”  The text that followed was worthy of the headline, saying things such as

“Over the weekend, Governor Andrew Cuomo signaled to the world that, whatever questions may exist about investigations into possible self-dealing by his administration, the effectiveness of his signature big-ticket projects, or his level of support for the Democratic Party, he has balls made of solid brass.
“How?  Why he killed a 154-pound thresher shark off the coast of the Hamptons…
“Still doubting Cuomo’s iron-like constitution and unflinching bravery?...”
It’s the sort of thing that you’d expect to be written by a Manhattanite encased in a tower of concrete and steel, whose closest approach to the natural world comes when he finds a cockroach swimming in his (gluten-free) cereal bowl.  

It includes all of the tropes typically included by urban dwellers who draw a sharp line between “people” and “nature,” including the suggestion that people hunt or, in this case, fish as a way to prove their manhood and courage, and perhaps make up for other shortcomings.

It’s laughable, but we shouldn’t laugh too hard, because such urban attitudes are infecting a population that is ever more divorced from the natural world, and that has some real implications for the future of both our sport and the natural world itself.

Far too many folks who don’t hunt and fish, and don’t associate with people who do, just don’t understand why some of us engage in such activities.  In their neat, stainless steel and Styrofoam world, where meat—if they eat it at all—is packed atop absorbent pads to help hide the fact that it ever held blood, the idea of killing a living creature in order to dine on its flesh is not only incomprehensible but, in many of their minds, abhorrent. 

They know little or nothing about conservation successes.  

They have probably never heard of duck stamps, the return of the wild turkey or the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.   And, because they have never seen themselves as a part of the ecosystem, and never interacted with the real world as predator or, in extremely rare cases, as prey, they really don’t understand how things work, or where the real problems lie.

Lewis Pugh, the United Nations’ so-called “patron of the oceans” got into the act, describing Cuomo’s killing of the thresher shark as “abhorrent,” and saying that

“The environment is the primary issue on the global agenda, so it is extraordinary that a senior political could be so ignorant about it.  Apex predators such as sharks are crucial for the ocean ecosystems.  For a public figure to kill such an animal and then boast about it on social media is dangerously irresponsible.  This shows a clear lack of judgment and calls to question his capability as a public leader.”
Of course, when you read that statements, you should first understand that Mr. Pugh is neither a trained biologist nor has any experience as a fishery manager; his degrees are in politics and law, and he earned his fame by being a marathon swimmer, who engages in stunts such as swimming across the North Pole to publicize environmental issues.

Given that lack of training, it’s easier to understand why Mr. Pugh might make a big fuss over Governor Cuomo killing a smallish thresher shark, while saying nothing when the one company, Omega Protein, Inc., killed about 300,000,000 pounds of Atlantic menhaden in 2014—even though those menhaden are a critical part of the food web, an important prey species not only for thresher sharks, but for just about every predatory fish on the east coast.

Mr. Pugh is correct when he says that apex predators are important to marine ecosystems, but without any prey, they don’t have much of a purpose…

On the other hand, menhaden are small, not particularly impressive fish.  And not that many people have heard of Omega Protein.  If you want to get the best bang for your PR buck, you’re better off criticizing Governor Cuomo for killing one shark, than you would have been criticizing Omega for killing a few hundred million pounds of menhaden, even if Omega’s actions do far more harm over all.

After all, sharks are charismatic, and have fallen upon some rough times; that makes it easy to outrage the kind of folks who get most of their information from internet memes.  And the International Union for the Conservation of Nature did call thresher sharks “vulnerable.”

Of course, none of the Governor’s critics took any time to explain what “vulnerable” means.  The IUCN ratings scale places “vulnerable” somewhere in the middle; a “vulnerable” species is in worse shape than one which is of “Least Concern” or “Threatened,” but in better shape than those which are “Endangered,” “Critically Endangered” or “Extinct in the Wild.”

No one has seen the Gothamist trying to shut down any sushi bars lately; in fact, it reviews and promotes them, even when they serve otoro...

Given that, Gothamist’s criticism of the Governor’s thresher seems more than a bit hypocritical, and more than a little bit lame.

I consider myself a conservationist, and I know a bit about sharks.  I’ve participated in the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Cooperative Shark Tagging Program since the late 1970s, helping to provide data about sharks migrations, growth rates, harvest levels, etc.  If I had caught Governor Cuomo’s shark, I probably would have tagged it and let it go, as I’ve released every other shark caught from my boat in the past 16 years.

But I just can’t fault the Governor for making a different decision.  Thresher sharks aren’t as abundant as they used to be, but a recent NMFS study determined that, here inthe northwestern Atlantic, they’re neither threatened nor endangered.  Taking the very occasional fish home for food won’t make that change.

Now, if Governor Cuomo had killed a winter flounder, I might have been far more upset.  They are arguably the most imperiled salt water fish in the state, and could easily disappear forever.  

But small, flat and brown is most definitely uncharismatic, and it’s pretty safe to say that neither Gothamist, Mr. Pugh nor all of the folks on Twitter would be particularly outraged had Governor Cuomo had tweeted about killing a flounder instead of a shark.

Flounders are, after all, so plebian, while sharks are, well, big...

If the writers at Gothamist heard that a flounder had died, they’d just look at each other and shrug.

And go back to eating their sushi.

No comments:

Post a Comment