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.
Meanwhile, since March, five species, including porbeagles and scalloped hammerheads, now fall under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which could save these threatened species from total collapse. As Audubon went to press, New York was poised to join California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Illinois, and Maryland in banning the fin trade. And since 2010, 142 of the country's more than 10,000 marinas have joined the Shark-Friendly Marina Initiative, agreeing to ban killing or landing sharks.
On the fishing front, repellents might help cut down on the tens of millions killed as bycatch each year by longline operations. Releasing a chemical based on extracts from dead sharks has been shown to work in laboratory tests. Also under investigation are magnets, which repel sharks by overwhelming their electrical sensors--gel-filled pores called ampullae of Lorenzini. (In hammerheads, the sensors are spread over the animal's wide, mallet-shaped head, enabling it to detect stingrays buried in the sand and aiding with navigation.)
All these breakthroughs are occurring while studies are teasing out sharks' role in marine ecosystems. Mounting evidence indicates that there are cascading ecological effects when top-level predators decline. A recent investigation looked at four reef systems in the Pacific Islands, ranging from hosting a robust shark population to having few, if any, because of overfishing. Where sharks were abundant, other fish and coral thrived. When they were absent, algae choked the reef nearly to death and biodiversity plummeted.
Overfishing sharks, such as the bull, great white, and hammerhead, along the Atlantic Coast has led to an explosion of the rays, skates, and small sharks they eat, another study found. Some of those creatures, in turn, are devouring shellfish and possibly tearing up seagrass while they forage, destroying feeding grounds for birds and nurseries for fish.
"To have healthy populations of healthy seabirds and shorebirds, we need a healthy marine environment," says Mike Sutton, Audubon California executive director and a Shark-Friendly Marina Initiative board member. "We're not going to have that without sharks."
Back at the marina, competitors gather with friends and family, awaiting the final results and sharing tales of luring sharks from the deep--intentionally and not.
C.J. Wickersham, 23, a first-time participant, knows what it's like to be shark bait. As he drinks a beer with his mom in the bar, his shorts hide a scar covering his upper left thigh--a 15-inch semicircle imprint of a bull shark's bite. While spearfishing the previous autumn, a 10-foot shark clamped down on his leg (Mote biologists estimated its size by the bite marks). He punched its nose, and his friends pulled him out of the water onto a boat, tied a tourniquet around his leg, and took him to shore, where he was airlifted to a hospital and received 800 stitches. "I love fishing," he says with a shy shrug. "I'm not going to be afraid of the ocean."
In the end, Reutter and Naeve's lemon shark put them over the top, and they take first place. "We'll definitely be back next year," says Naeve, grinning as he holds the oversized check for $8,450.
Team Budweiser, which finished first in 2011, didn't place at all. But team members Chris Slattery and David Hutcherson, both tanned, 30-something sportfishing guides, take it in stride. "This is the only shark tournament we've fished, and we'll be back," says Slattery, explaining that the conservation angle is what hooked him.
"There's no reason to do kill tournaments," adds Hutcherson. "If you're killing what you're catching, you're ruining your business, not to mention the overall ocean."
This year Hueter and the Paxtons tweaked the tournament. Rather than a weekend-long event, they stretched it over the prime shark-fishing period, from mid-May through summer's end. "The competition continues," says Hueter, "but this will allow us to put more resources and focus on better meeting the scientific goals--particularly putting satellite tags on the species we want to learn more about, like hammerheads." It might also shed light on post-release survivorship, something both Hueter and Hammerschlag are studying because so little is known about how sharks fare once they're set free.
In the meantime, catch-and-release shark tournaments with a science component continue to catch on elsewhere, with a half-dozen scheduled this summer. For the first time, a large-scale competition is taking place in Montauk, Long Island, in July. "To get those guys to accept a catch-and-release tournament is a huge step," says Hueter. "That area up there--Montauk, Martha's Vineyard--that is a true epicenter of traditional shark kill tournaments."
In fact, Martha's Vineyard residents voted to make its 27-year-old Monster Shark Tournament catch-and-release for the first time ever in 2014, though there's no plan to do satellite tagging.
You have to think Jaws author Peter Benchley would approve. He set his book on Long Island, and the movie was filmed on Martha's Vineyard. Benchley later used his fame to help promote marine conservation. "I couldn't possibly write Jaws today," he wrote in Audubon in 1998, eight years before his death. "We know so much more about sharks--and just as important, about our position as the single most careless, voracious, omnivorous destroyer of life on earth--that the notion of demonizing a fish strikes me as insane."
The tide is surely turning--perhaps even fast enough to ensure that these ancient creatures remain kings of the ocean for millennia to come.