Sunday, September 3, 2017


Like a lot of folks who grow up near the water, I’ve been fascinated by sharks for a very long time.

My first exposure to the clan was a “sand shark”—more properly, a smooth dogfish—that I caught from a rowboat sometime around my kindergarten year.  And yes, to me that was a very big deal.

But my real introduction came later, when I was thirteen, and went on my first “real deep-sea fishing trip” with my father and two of his friends.  We fished out of Galilee, Rhode Island on the Sea Squirrel, an old, slow party boat—someone once told me that it was a converted World War II sub chaser—that struggled to make 10 knots and took 2 ½ hours to get out to Cox’s Ledge.  But it was run by a captain who knew how to find cod when we eventually got there.

My father and I were fishing on the stern, and as soon as our baits hit the bottom, fish started grabbing on.  A fisherman a few feet away from me hooked a good fish that would probably have weighed at least 30 pounds.  But I can only speculate about that, because as the cod neared the boat, a big blue shark came out of nowhere and bit it in half.

The fishermen cursed, and cranked harder, hoping to salvage the few pounds of meat that the shark had left behind.  It looked like he would make it, but just as the cod’s truncated carcass broke the surface, the shark rolled up across the Sea Squirrel's stern, its back out of the water maybe three feet from my toes, took the cod in its jaws, broke the line and was gone.

It was the most spectacular exhibition of raw animal power I had seen in my young life, and proved a watershed.  At that moment, I promised myself that I’d become an offshore angler, and challenge the muscle and heart of such fish with my own.

And yes, I did those things, but not quite in the way I’d imagined.

I’ve been an active participant in the northeastern shark fishery for about forty years.  Over those years, I've either caught or helped others to catch many, many blue sharks, makos, tigers, threshers, sandbars, duskies and hammerheads (I may have left out a species or two).  

I was fishing maybe 30 miles south of Montauk, on a 20-foot boat, when a white shark about 15 feet long and perhaps 2,500 pounds—heavier than the combined weight of the boat, engine, gear and the people on board—cruised past almost near enough to touch.

That fish left me enraptured.

Because in becoming a shark fisherman, I discovered that I had become something else.  I became an enthusiast and a student of the big fish, which continue to fascinate me.  

I enjoy fishing for them, pitting myself against their strength and stamina.  But I don’t enjoy killing them, and seldom do.

On the first shark fishing trip that I ever made, paid for with the money I got from the first magazine article that I ever sold, I became a participant in the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Cooperative Shark Tagging Program, in which anglers tag and release sharks so that researchers can use data received, if the fish are recaptured, to study migration patterns, age, growth rates and fishing mortality, among other things.

Along the way, I’ve killed a few sharks—some in tournaments, others solely for the table—but never in excess and none went to waste.  Tournaments that leave sharks--even one--in a dumpster revolt me.  And even then, the last time my flying gaff pierced a shark’s skin was seventeen years ago.

Most of the anglers I know treat sharks with similar respect.  They may take a mako or thresher for the table every now and then, but they also let a lot of fish go.  Many now make a point of releasing their larger makos, believing that the big, mature females ought not to be killed.

And that’s a good thing.  Despite their role as an apex predator, sharks find themselves in a perilous place.  

Because they are large fish with few natural enemies once they grow large, they tend to be very slow to mature, reproduce slowly and, when populations are driven down, they are very slow to recover.  As an example, NMFS current management plan for dusky sharks predicts that the beleaguered population will take 100 years to rebuild—and that’s the agency’s most optimistic estimate; rebuilding could take four times that long.

Thus, it’s not surprising to learn that quite a few shark populations have become depleted, and that others are at risk. 

As someone who has been a shark fishermen since the 1970s, I’ve noticed a real decline in some species’ abundance.  Sandbar sharks, a close relative of the dusky, used to be very common off Long Island and southern New England.  Then, for a number of years, we caught very few.  Now, thanks to strict fishery management measures that prohibit harvest by anglers and all but a very few commercial fishermen, they seem to be coming back, and have been quite abundant in local waters this year.  Even so, the population isn’t expected to recover until about 2070—53 years from now.

Mako sharks also seem to be getting scarcer.  The Long Island mako season used to last from late May well into November, with a reasonable number of fish over 200 pounds caught even during the height of the summer.   But over the past 30 years, the season has grown shorter; most of the larger fish are caught in two short windows, from mid-June to mid-July, or from mid-September into mid-October.  Except out at Montauk, where boats have access to cooler water, fishing during the summer is very slow.

That’s not too surprising, because makos are arguably the most popular shark species, prized for both their value as food and as fighters; they are fast and, when hooked, often erupt into multiple, spinning leaps that take them high out of the water.  Thus, fishermen kill quite a few.  

That suggests a worrisome rate of fishing mortality for a species that is so slow to mature—only 50% of females have reached reproductive maturity by the age of 18—and only produces one litter, which may number between 4 and 25 juveniles, every three years

Yet recent research suggests that the NMFS tag data may present an incomplete picture of shortfin mako mortality.  The real picture is probably far worse. 

Researchers in Florida and Rhode Island have been tagging the fish with satellite tags that automatically notify them when a mako is caught and killed, rather than the NMFS tags that must be mailed (or e-mailed) back to the agency to alert it of a recapture.  30% of the 40 fish tagged with such satellite tags have been recaptured, suggesting that a shortfin mako has only a 72% chance of surviving for even one year without being caught.  That would mean that the mortality rate is ten times higher than previously believed, and that the shortfin mako is subject to very severe, and clearly unsustainable, overfishing.

That needs to be fixed.  Unfortunately, because makos, like most highly migratory species, migrate across ocean basins and so are managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, there is no guarantee that any action will be taken soon.

The mako’s larger relative, the white shark, is also drawing the wrong kind of attention off New England these days.  

Recently, the sight of a shark killing a seal a short distance off a popular Cape Cod beach, and upsetting the people who saw it occur, has led a local Cape Cod politician to call for such fish to be killed.  In words reminiscent of the 1970s movie Jaws, Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beatty has called for baited lines to be set off Cape Cod beaches, and for any sharks caught to be killed and dumped at sea.  

“based upon the sharp increase in shark-related attacks and incidents around Cape Cod in recent years, there is a clear and present danger to human life as a result of this growing problem…
“This shark, that attack that got videotaped off Nauset, that was very close to shore and very easily could have been a small child and not a seal.  It’s very easy for those sharks to mistake a person for a seal.  They’re just looking for something to eat.  God forbid it’s somebody’s child, and by that time, it’s too late.  We can’t wait for that.”
But if anyone recalls the movie, attempts to kill the shark involved didn’t end very well, either for the shark or for many of the would-be shark hunters.

It would be better to leave the sharks alone, and just take the same sort of precautions campers and hikers have long taken out west, when they enter grizzly bear country.  Be situationally aware.  Give the big predators plenty of room.  And don’t act like—and, for would-be wetsuit wearers, don’t look like—their food.”

Yes, one day there will probably be a fatal shark attack on the Cape.  But that hasn’t happened yet, and when it does, the total number of tourists killed by sharks on Cape Cod in all of recorded history will still be far smaller than the number killed by drunks driving cars in the course of any single season.  So if the County Commissioner wants to save lives, sharks aren’t the place to start…

And then there are the other sharks, the ones that often don’t get the headlines, but are nonetheless having problems and don’t need any more.  NMFS maintains a whole list of them, and calls them “prohibited species.”  The white, dusky and sandbar, already mentioned, are on that list, along with the sand tiger and bignose and silky and a few more.

One of the problems they’re having, up here in the northeast, is the resurgent popularity of shark fishing from the surf.

There’s no question that it’s a challenging sport, and that a shark is the biggest thing a surfcaster here on Long Island is ever going to have on his line.   There’s also little question that, in this part of the world, when anyone shark fishes from the beach, prohibited species are just about all that they’re going to catch.  Sandbars and sand tigers will comprise almost all of the catch.

That’s a problem, because while sharks are relatively easy to hook from the beach, they’re not easy to let go.  That leads to the fish being dragged up out of the water and onto the beach, often by their tails, which were never designed—particularly given the fact that the shark’s spine is not made of bone, but rather of soft cartilage—for that purpose, just as a shark’s internal organs were never designed to support the weight of such fish when out of the water.  Thus, it is easy for even the best-intentioned angler to fatally injure a fish in the course of trying to release it.

Add to those stresses the fact that many anglers can’t find it in themselves to let a shark go without first taking a series of photos, which leaves the fish out of the water longer than necessary, depriving it of the oxygen that it can only extract from the sea.  Handling during the photos is also far from gentle, with fishermen often wanting photos showing themselves sitting astride their conquered quarry.  Some idiots take that a step farther, grab the shark by the nose and bend their heads backward in ways that threaten the spine, in order to show off the fact that the fish has teeth—something that most of us already know.

Such handling can easily lead to delayed mortality, where the fish swims away, apparently healthy, and later succumbs to its injuries and dies unseen and unlamented by its erstwhile captor.

“If you catch a prohibited shark species while fishing from shore, please do not drag the shark onto the beach.  If you hook a prohibited shark species you must return the shark to the water at once, without unnecessary injury to the shark.  The easiest way to do this is to cut your leader as closely to the hook (as safely as practicable), while the shark is still in the water.”

“It is unlawful for any hook and line fisherman to remove from the water sandbar shark, or any other species of shark when prohibited from harvest…”
That’s a good rule.  But in New York, and probably other states, anglers dragging prohibited sharks onto the sand could still find themselves in trouble.  As noted in a recent article on the website 27East, which focuses on eastern Long Island,

“The federal laws protecting them also makes it illegal to target those species of shark—which Mr. Metzger [a biologist interviewed for the article] and other shark scientists say anyone fishing for sharks from the beach is doing, since they are generally the only species that come into the surf zone regularly…
“Picking up the sharks or sitting on their backs, holding their mouths agape, for photos, which Mr. Metzger says he sees examples of frequently in social media, is an offense that can be prosecuted.
“A spokesperson for the State Department of Environmental Conservation said that publicly shared photos can be grounds for issuing a summons for a violation…
”Mr. Metzger…says he understands the thrill that shore anglers are seeking but believes that they should put concern for the sharks ahead of entertainment.
“[P]ulling a shark up onto the sand, even if only to remove a hook, compounded with the stress of the fight, can be fatal for the shark, even an hour after it is released seemingly healthy.
“’You are potentially killing a protected species for a photo,’ he said.  “’Come on.’”

That pretty much says it all.

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