By Kaelyn Lynch ILCW Member (USA)
Previously published by Sevenseas
(photo measuring a Shark)
Researchers measure a shark as part of their work at a tournament in Montauk, New York. Photo by Kaelyn Lynch
The dock at Montauk Marine Basin’s 46th Annual Shark Fishing tournament is equal parts sporting event and science lab. A shark is strung up by its tail and weighed, the result eliciting cheers from the crowd, but not before a researcher scurries beneath with a bucket to collect the stomach contents that flow from the mouth. Nearby, beneath the cover of a small shed, a research team slices through layers of tough skin and muscle to remove oily livers, reproductive tissues, and chunks of spinal column, while a scientist records measurements and observations. Occasionally, one of the day’s anglers, beer in hand, pokes his head in to watch the process, or to ask how his catch will be used to further scientific knowledge.
Recreational fishing is not often thought to coincide with shark conservation. Yet, the scene on the eastern tip of New York that day is just one of many instances across the United States where scientists have entered into a beneficial partnership with anglers.
The U.S. is one of the largest recreational fisheries in the world, with 11 million saltwater anglers contributing over $60 billion to the economy annually, interest in shark fishing spiked during the 1970s, when Jaws spawned a generation of anglers looking to do battle with man-eaters. Since then, increased research and awareness efforts have created a shift towards sustainability, driving scientists and anglers together in a mutual interest to protect sharks as a resource. Still, the question of how much catching sharks for sport can contribute to their conservation is a complex one.
As one chief of the Apex Predators Program at NOAA fisheries’ Narragansett, Rhode Island lab, Dr. Nancy Kohler is part of a team that has been attending shark fishing tournaments for over 30 years. The biological samples they collect go towards gathering long-term information about populations in the region through determining what they eat, their age, and what size they are when they mature, factors that are critical to creating effective management strategies.
Dr. Kohler also utilizes the opportunity for education, discussing the latest research and regulations at pre-tournament captains’ meetings. Each boat receives a packet containing information on shark identification, sizing, and best catch-and-release practices. She also supplies tags from the national Marine Fisheries Service and information on their cooperative tagging program. This nationwide effort provides recreational and commercial fishers with tags to attach to sharks they release, and encourages them to report information on tagged sharks they capture. Upon recapture, the tags provide data on population sizes, sex composition, and migration patterns. With insufficient data as one of the largest barriers to effective management, tagging is a way for fishermen to help fill in critical gaps.
Still Dr. Kohler is quick to state that her work does not justify these tournaments; it is simply opportunistic sampling that has evolved into a successful partnership over time. “These tournaments were happening anyway,” she says, “and these sharks live so long, and are so hard to catch, when else would you have this many samples coming in?”
While so-called kill tournaments were once the norm, the Northeastern seaboard is one of the last places where they are still popular. The
sport of shark fishing has its roots here, in 1950s Montauk, where charter-boat captain Frank Mundus famously harpooned white sharks, supposedly inspiring the character Quint in the novel version of Jaws. Accordingly, the region is home to some of the oldest and largest tournaments in the country.
These tournaments have long come under fire from environmental groups, and even some scientists. Dr. Joanna Borucinska, a professor at the University of Hartford, says although her research uses some samples collected at the tournaments, she would be happy to see them end. “There’s other opportunities for this research to be done without the tournaments,” she says, stating she is against fishing for sport, “It comes down to whether you think that animals have a right to be able to live and be healthy unless we need them for food.”
Dr. Greg Skomal, senior biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, takes a different approach. He does not oppose kill tournaments, so long as they use the sharks for food (as most do), and follow the rules set down by fisheries managers, such as minimum size requirements and bans on harvesting certain species. “The state and federal government have put conservation measures in place, if they adhere to these regulations, then fishing is OK.”
Dr. Skomal has worked extensively with recreational and commercial fishers, and says they have contributed information necessary for creating sustainable fisheries probably more than any other group through providing data, platforms, and expertise. “Just like hunters,” Skomal says, “fishermen have a much greater respect for conservation than people would anticipate.” Unlike hunters, however, anglers have the option of releasing their prize alive.
This was the idea behind the Shark’s Eye Tournament, of which Dr. Skomal was an integral part. Run out of Montauk Marine Basin by its late owner, Carl Daren berg Jr., the fishing tournament was devoted entirely to tagging and releasing sharks for science, the first of its kind in the region. In addition to the hundreds of sharks affi><ed with conventional dart tags. Dr. Skomal and his team helped tag 13 sharks with donated satellite tags, which transmit a signal each time the shark breaks the surface. The tournament ran successfully for three years, two of which were under the guidance of the charismatic Mr. Darenberg Jr.’s children after his death. Although the momentum ran out this year in the face of other more established contests, the fact that it occurred in the birthplace of the sport may be an indicator of where fishing is headed.
In William Fudora’s home state of Florida, catch and-keep style shark tournaments are all but extinct. As president of the South Florida Shark Club and founder of the Shorebound Anglers’ Alliance, his Big Hammer Challenge is entirely shore-based, and entirely catch-and-release. Spanning four states in the Southeast and lasting over a month, the tournament awards prizes based on length, garnered from datestamped photos submitted by participants.
Fudora spent his childhood in the 1970s on Miami’s South Beach Pier, fishing sometimes late into the night, fueled by his mother’s sandwiches and the anticipation of the next big catch. Watching the thrilling spectacle of his friend battling a large shark inspired him to do the same; once he did, he was, for lack of a better word, hooked.
Fudora’s home in a suburb north of Miami is a monument to South Florida shark fishing. Faded photographs of smiling men next to giant sharks dot his mantle, jaws lay scattered across his table, and a mold of a hammerhead is
suspended over the tiki bar in his yard. Fudora sees the jaws more than anything as a relic of a previous era; he claims he hasn’t killed a shark in years, and that people who continue to do so have a “mental hang-up.” “I enjoy the fight, but I love the animal, I don’t want to kill it,” he says, noting he’s given most of his jaws away. Fudora now uses his club and tournament to advocate for sustainable fishing practices, emphasizing catch-and-release, and trains anglers in a “two minute drill” of measuring, photographing, tagging, and releasing a shark, all while keeping it in the water.
For Fudora, fishing isn’t just a hobby, but a part of his identity, and he demonstrates a fierce passion for protecting fishermen’s rights. He has seen increasing attempts by town governments in Florida to ban shark fishing from their beaches, often without the legal right to do so, a move he feels is motivated by negative publicity and unfounded fears of increased shark attacks. Instead, he wants to see more regulations aimed at commercial fishing vessels, which he says are the ones really decimating populations.
Recent studies have shown that Fudora is more of the rule than the exception when it comes to modern-day shark anglers. A 2016 paper published in Aquatic Conservation found a strong conservation ethic and understanding of threats to sharks amongst avid anglers in a nationwide survey of recreational fishermen. Most respondents practiced catch-and-release, with 89 percent agreeing with the importance of releasing sharks in good condition, and 80 percent saying they would be willing to use special gear and techniques to minimize damage to the animal. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed agreed that having viable shark populations is important, though opinions were split on whether further regulations on fishing were necessary. While the study suggests that these attitudes could be used as a tool to promote conservation, it also alludes to areas of conflict.
According to the survey, few recreational anglers perceived their sport to be a threat to shark populations, with the vast majority pointing the finger at commercial vessels. While globally, commercial fishing certainly has a greater impact on shark populations, within the U.S., recreational anglers may be underestimating
their own contribution. According to the 2013 Fisheries of the U.S. report, recreational anglers killed more large (non-dogfish) sharks by weight than commercial fishermen, about 4.5 million pounds versus 3.2 million pounds, a trend that repeated in 2014, though to a lesser extent. While these statistics do not account for unwanted species caught by commercial vessels and dumped at sea (though most are landed), it suggests that a many people with a single hook can in fact have an impact akin to one person with many hooks.
The targeting of large sharks by recreational fishermen hoping to break world records may also exacerbate these effects. As in other species of fish, larger sharks have a greater reproductive potential, showing an ability to carry more young and reproduce more often. Females also tend to be larger than males, meaning the largest individuals in a population are often pregnant females. Therefore, removing a single large shark could have a disproportionately negative impact on the population, which is of special concern for species with already declining numbers. Currently, 15 species of sharks with world records issued by the International Game Fishing Association are also listed as “Threatened with Extinction” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Even if a shark is released alive, the stress caused by its capture could result in its death, even days or weeks later. Research shows that certain species are more susceptible to capture stress than others, with hammerheads named as particularly vulnerable. Dr. Austin Gallagher, who studies sharks’ behavioral and physiological response to capture, says his work implies that hammerheads’ elevated stress response is associated with its hard-fighting nature and tendency to “pull line,” the same quality that makes them a highly sought target for recreational anglers.
Many fishermen are aware of hammerheads’ vulnerability, and try to increase their chances by minimizing fight times and keeping them submerged while removing gear. While Dr. Gallagher appreciates these efforts, he says given hammerheads’ high stress response even at low fight times, they are not enough to stop the plummeting of their populations. In one of his studies, a great hammerhead died minutes after being released while being fought for under half an hour, even when using lower-stress fishing techniques. Given this outcome, Dr. Gallagher says hammerheads are better off risking the hazards of retained gear left by an angler cutting the line immediately than fighting being reeled into the boat or shore. Although, the best practice, he says, would be for fishermen to stop targeting fragile species altogether. “I love recreational anglers, they are great people and most of them really care about the resource,” he says, “but they have to listen to the data.” He also stresses the responsibility of scientists to effectively communicate this data and actively engaging with anglers, the importance of which “cannot be overstated.”
Hammerheads are already protected in certain states, such as Florida, but Gallagher says given their fragility they should also be given greater federal protections, though petitions to do so were rejected for two of the three species. A recent study by Gallagher’s colleague from the University of Miami, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, could help bolster this argument. It showed that only 17 percent of hammerheads’ core range on the Atlantic seaboard-the places where they spend most of their time-are protected, but covering hammerheads under federal law would cover this range entirely. “One of the big arguments is that sharks are highly mobile and will end up in international waters where there’s no protection in place, so why should we lose the economic opportunity if it will be exploited elsewhere?” Dr. Hammerschlag states, “But if you protect them in key areas where they are doing important things like feeding and reproducing, you don’t necessarily have to protect them everywhere they go,” adding that in the past, such policies have brought other migratory species, such as birds, back from the brink of extinction.
While this is promising, Dr. Hammerschlag recognizes the challenges of shark fisheries management. “It’s hard enough to get the data, and then
there’s a lot of socio-political factors…the human dimension is not easy.”
Fishermen make up a large part of this human dimension, and an increasing number of scientists are seeing collaboration as the key to a more sustainable fishery. In that regard, U.S. Fisheries have come a long way, says Dr. Robert Hueter, who directs the Center for Shari< Research at Mote Marine Laboratory. He points to the rebound in U.S. white shark populations after as one of the recent successes in fisheries management. Still, he would like to see the system become, “more proactive and visionary, to get us to the changes that would give us to the changes that would give us healthy fisheries 10 years from now.” A big proponent of working with recreational and commercial fishermen to achieve this goal, he says one of the most effective ways of doing so is bringing scientists and fishermen together on the water.
Captain Mark Sampson is no stranger to this sort of collaboration, having conducted research expeditions, educational trips, and scientific studies aboard his charter fishing boat in Maryland and the Florida Keys. One such study involved comparing the effectiveness of circle shaped hooks versus traditional J-shaped hooks in hooking sharks in the mouth, rather than the esophagus or stomach, which can cause more damage. The data Sampson collected showed that not only did circle hooks significantly increase the likelihood a shark would be hooked in the mouth, but that it would be hooked when taking the bait and remain on the line. This is important information for anglers reluctant to make the switch to circle hooks on the basis that doing so will affect their catch efficiency.
Even with only about s percent of sharks ending up gut-hooked with circle hooks, for Sampson, who catches S00-600 sharks in a season, that number jumped out at him. In response, he developed what he calls the blocker rig, essentially a piece of pipe attached to the line that prevents a shark from swallowing the bait. In his own experiments mimicking those of the circle hook study, Sampson proved the blocker rig effective at stopping virtually all gut hooking. His invention has since been adopted by scientists catching sharks for their research; he even once spotted it during a feature on Shark Week, being used on massive white sharks.
After 30 years as a captain, for Sampson, part of the motivation for becoming involved in conservation comes from fishing itself, “Maybe I see [sharks] differently than other people… because you’re catching them all the time, you see how vulnerable they are to being mistreated.”
Research like Sampson’s not only contributes to scientific knowledge and the development of better fishing practices, but helps bridge the gap between anglers and scientists. “Scientists need to show respect for fishermen’s knowledge,” Dr. Hueter says. “When you build a relationship based on respect and mutual interest, [fishermen] stop seeing scientists and government as people who want to regulate them, but as people who are trying to help, and become partners in conserving the resource.”
To read the entire article with photos click here (https://www.joomag.com/magazine/sevenseas-marine-conservation-travel-issue-16-september-2016/0952280001469807030/p34?short0