Safer Waters for Sharks
Masters of the underwater universe for millions of years, the much-persecuted shark may finally have a fighting chance thanks to friends in surprising places.
To catch a shark, stick close to shore. That's Tom Reutter and Brandon Naeve's philosophy on a hot, bright May morning in the Gulf of Mexico, off Boca Grande, Florida. While other competitors in the weekend-long tournament have motored out to deeper depths, the sportfishing guides' boat is rocking in chest-deep aquamarine saltwater, a stone's throw from a white sand beach. The nearby "No Swimming" signs hint that they might be on to something.
Yesterday, using dead fish as bait, they enticed a seven-foot bull shark to bite. Today when the line goes taut, Naeve fights to reel in an eight-foot lemon shark. Surfacing, it thrashes and bites the side of the boat with its razor-sharp teeth. Named for its yellowish-green coloring, the blunt-snouted shark will eat just about anything in the near-shore waters it inhabits: stingrays, crustaceans, smaller sharks, even seabirds. Its broad appetite, however, doesn't extend to people: The International Shark Attack Files report only 10 unprovoked attacks ever, worldwide, by lemon sharks on humans, none fatal.
Even so, it's not a creature you'd want to dally with. Reutter quickly secures the shark with a tail gaff beside the boat while a trained observer looks on. It snaps at the measuring rod as Naeve calls out its length, and he hustles to implant an ID tag beside its dorsal fin before setting it free. Once unleashed, it disappears back into the ocean.
Thirty miles away, in Punta Gorda, the drama streams live on a jumbo screen. Hundreds of people in shorts, sundresses, and flipflops watch with rapt attention, breaking into applause as the shark slips away. Then they turn back to the onshore activities. There's an impressive collection of Jaws movie memorabilia, including gruesome life-sized dummies used as shark-bite victims, and a Mote Marine Laboratory mobile aquarium. A dozen kids wait to have sharks painted on their cheeks by a mermaid with a sparkly pink fishtail and gold pasties covering her otherwise bare breasts. One night Jaws shows under the stars; the other, a rock band plays at a street party.
This is the Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge--a new twist on an old sport that's being replicated from Florida to Long Island. In traditional catch-and-kill tournaments, anglers haul their catch to shore, where the dead behemoths are weighed, measured, and strung up side-by-side, like contestants in a bloody beauty competition. In new science-based catch-and-release tournaments, everyone wins: Scientists collect data about these poorly understood predators, anglers enjoy the thrill of the chase and vie for cash prizes, spectators watch the action live, and sharks swim away with their lives.
"Rather than killing these large sharks, we want to track them," says Robert Hueter, the tournament's scientific director and head of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. Learning where they feed, breed, and raise young, and identifying particularly destructive fishing hotspots, is vital to developing sorely needed science-based management plans. "We're still largely blind, reaching in the dark, trying to figure out what's going on."
As apex predators, sharks have been masters of the undersea universe for millions of years, helping keep the ocean ecosystem healthy. But humans have relegated them to one of the sea's most vulnerable residents, thus disrupting the entire marine ecosystem, from corals to seabirds. Of the more than 400 shark species in the world's oceans, nearly one-third are threatened. Populations of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks have declined by more than 90 percent in some areas. The commercial fishing industry kills an estimated one in 15 sharks a year globally, though recreational fishing takes a toll, too. Catch-and-release shark tournaments are the latest effort to help stem the decline and shift public attitudes from fear of sharks to fear for them.
Anglers had little interest in sharks before the mid-1970s. Then Jaws hit movie theaters in 1975. In the blockbuster thriller a great white shark terrorizes the people of Amity, a fictitious New England island, playing on the dread of unseen monsters lurking in their midst. After its release, droves of fishermen took to the ocean almost as if on a crusade.
They were wildly successful. Within a few years sport fishermen had caught hundreds of thousands of sharks, and kill tournaments proliferated. By the mid-1980s commercial fisheries joined the pursuit, taking sharks for their fins and, to a lesser extent, meat (high levels of urea require that it be handled properly so it doesn't spoil).
Today an estimated 100 million sharks die annually as bycatch, target catch, or for their fins, prized as a delicacy in China and as a supposed aphrodisiac (despite evidence that they're full of neurotoxins). Once fishermen slice off the fins, they typically drop the wounded animal in the water, where it suffocates or becomes shark food itself. Sport fishing isn't nearly as destructive, but it still makes a dent in dwindling populations: In U.S. waters, sport fishermen killed about 200,000 sharks in 2011, according to NOAA.
"Recreational fishing was responsible for the early declines," says Hueter. Anglers took the largest animals, which also happen to be the older, sexually mature individuals of the slow-growing family. "By the 1990s sharks were becoming harder and harder to catch, and they decreased in size."