seas were rough for a day of shark fishing, one that makes waves in
your stomach -- and not because you’re “sharkin’,” as the
captain put it. The bow of the 48-foot research vessel seemed to
reach for the sky before dropping nose-first down into a wave. At
times it looked like we were going to dive straight into those dark
open waters before the next wave lifted the boat again.
is, at least, for the new kid on the boat. The seasoned crew dressed
in green waders and orange gloves stepped steady and deliberately
across the stern, which has an opening flush with the ocean, as they
hauled and released a trawl net of fish onto the deck, bait for our
larger prize. The scent of diesel fuel and fish, the deep drone of
the boat engine, not even the cool, salty breeze could take my mind
off what prehistoric predator might be lurking down below. What would
we catch today?
don’t worry too much about it stormin’,” said Capt. Joe
and his crew make the biweekly pilgrimage to the waters off
Shackleford Banks in Carteret County to catch sharks for Frank
Schwartz, a researcher at the University of North Carolina’s
Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City. The routine is almost
always the same: They trawl for small fish to use as bait and then
they reel out about a mile of monofilament fishing line with dangling
baited hooks. They fish at two places, a mile-and-a-half and 12 miles
wanted to find out what we have out here,” said Schwartz, who began
surveying sharks off the North Carolina coast in 1972 and who’s
going on his 47th year
working at the institute as an ichthyologist, or fish scientist.
85, has more than 1,300 trips under its belt, making his shark survey
the longest continuous dataset in the United States that uses the
same gear at the same locations.
intercepts sharks on their seasonal migrations. Over the years, then,
he’s been able to detect the types of sharks that visit North
Carolina’s coast and gauge population trends. Most importantly, the
survey provides a historical perspective in assessing the health of
shark populations today.
says there are certain species that he isn’t seeing anymore,
particularly the large sharks. He thinks the decline is
cyclical and isn’t worried that any one species will go extinct.
However, other scientists think sharks are indeed in serious trouble.
And despite recent studies indicating that some sharks are very
slowly beginning to recover, their threat of extinction is still
Burgess is one of those scientists. He directs the shark
at the Florida
Museum of Natural History
and is the curator of the International
Shark Attack File.
“Shark populations have been under stress through a variety of
sources, most notably commercial fishing but also in certain areas of
the world, such as the East Coast of the United States through
recreational fishing and, of course, also as a result of habitat loss
and modification,” he said.
Early Days of Sharkin’
soon as the bait from the trawl net hit the deck, the students on
board swarmed over the pile, piercing the small fish with fat, rusted
hooks. Students often come on the shark survey trips to record the
measurements, the sex and the species. All captured live sharks will
be tagged and returned to sea.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse was a thimble on the horizon when the men
began deploying the fishing line in an assembly fashion. One
controlled the spool of line with a wooden stick, one took a seat on
the edge of the boat to pass the baited hooks in order while another
clipped orange buoys onto the line after every 10 hooks. Then it was
a matter of waiting.
to Schwartz, the decline in the populations of certain shark species
off the N.C. coast is a natural fluctuation. “One species goes
down, another will come up,” he said.
I say in the last sentence of my book, they’ve been around for 400
million years and I think they’ll be around for 400 million more
years,” Schwartz said.
Skates, and Rays of the Carolinas,"
published in 2009, is an illustrated guide that covers the 91 species
of sharks, skates and rays found off the Carolinas.
some of the larger species, however, the decline is undeniable to
dusky] shark, that big one, its population is crashing now. I don’t
think they’ll go extinct but it’s crashing,” he said. “Whereas
before we could catch in a day 20 to 30 of them, now I haven’t seen
one for five years.”
sharks is another one that’s disappearing on us,” he said. “We’re
not seeing them anymore.”
recalls the shark fishing clubs in Carteret County in the mid-1980s,
a time when as many as nine commercial boats fished for sharks. The
flesh could be eaten, the skin used for leather, the liver oil
extracted for vitamins or the fins sold in Asia, where shark fin soup
is a symbol of wealth and class in China.
1981 we had what was called a shark jubilee here and in Texas. We had
hundreds and hundreds of sharks here along the beach feeding, all
kinds of sharks,” said Schwartz.
beaches were closed for three days during that event. In that decade
alone, Schwartz surveyed about 3,400 sharks on the research vessel
and as many as 14 species a year.
could take you out there and in five minutes give you five to 10
kinds of dogfish sharks. You could go out there now and you’d be
lucky to get six,” Schwartz said.
every species of sharks on the [western] Atlantic have declined with
a couple rare exceptions,” said Burgess.
2007 statistical analysis of Schwartz’s survey revealed a drastic
decline in the number of the larger sharks at the top of the food
chain: 87 percent decline for sandbar sharks, 93 percent for
blacktips, up to 97 percent for tiger sharks, 98 percent for
scalloped hammerheads, and 99 percent or more for bull, dusky and
smooth hammerhead sharks. Such number, the analysis noted, “implies
their likely functional elimination.”
group of shark specialists for the International
Union for Conservation of Nature,
the world’s most comprehensive inventory of global conservation
statuses, recently found that a quarter of sharks, rays and other
cartilaginous fish are threatened with extinction. The group is at a
“substantially higher risk than most other groups of animals” and
has the “lowest percentage of species considered safe,” about 23
percent are classified as “Least Concern.”
released this year by the group, a co-chair for the shark specialist
group, Nick Dulvy, said, “Our analysis shows that sharks and their
relatives are facing an alarmingly elevated risk of extinction. In
greatest peril are the largest species of rays and sharks, especially
those living in shallow water that is accessible to fisheries.”
of the reason sharks have been hit so hard is because their biology
is working against them.
problems that sharks and rays have is that once they get down they
stay down for decades rather than years whereas most bony fishes
under proper management can recover in five to 10 years at most,”
reach sexual maturity late, and many can be pregnant for 12 to 24
months. Those with longer pregnancies reproduce once every two to
three years and females have few pups at a time.
will live for a long time, most species for 10 to 30 years and some
even longer. Great
live as long as 70 years or more. Schwartz said he is still catching
sharks with tags from 1972: “2011 was the last one,” he noted.
the best hunters in the ocean can have a downside. “They’re
actually pretty easy to catch because they’re so damn efficient at
finding bait and will take a hook so readily,” said Burgess.
nets are also extremely effective at killing sharks as well as other
marine life, he said.
species are found dead on lines anywhere from 80 to 100 percent of
the time,” said Burgess. “That’s the other part of the story --
not all sharks are created equal in that respect.”
to those that come up on a line very much alive, like the nurse
shark, the species that are more prone to dying during capture are
the ones that tend to have a much slower recovery rate, like
hammerheads. As an example, dusky sharks, which used to be quite
common on the North Carolina coast in the early 1970s, is a large
coastal shark with a three-year reproductive cycle that is probably
down to 10 or 20 percent of its original biomass, said Burgess.
Help Balance Our Oceans
it started raining, we were 12 miles offshore and nearly finished
reeling in the second line. Hook after hook came up to the boat
empty. After a half day at sea, only three sharks less than 3 feet
long were caught: two Atlantic sharpnose sharks and a small blacktip.
The sharpnose, which has white spots and averages about 3 feet, is
one of the most common sharks off the North Carolina coast in the
summertime and their pups are often caught off the piers. It can
recover two to three times faster than its kin because it reproduces
doing just fine,” said Burgess.
“Pete” Peterson, another researcher at the UNC institute who
co-authored the analysis of Schwartz’ survey data, suspects there
is another reason that factors in. The only natural enemy of small
sharks and rays are the sharks more than 6 feet long, the apex
predators. He and other researchers have found that the decline in
these larger sharks coincides with an increase in rays and smaller
sharks and also a cascading effect down the food chain.
as we discovered in our work, play a very important role in the
balance of nature in the context of their role as apex predators,”
Road to Recovery
Atlantic sharpnose isn’t the only species on the rebound. “Frankly,
virtually every shark out there is having some sort of recovery,”
part, he said, that’s because of different management strategies.
For example, closures prohibit fishing in an area during a certain
time of the year when a particular species, like the dusky, is likely
passing through on its migration.
the rise of great white sharks on the East Coast is because it’s
listed as a “prohibited”
species to catch by the National
Marine Fisheries Service
and also because the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 protects
the sharks’ favorite foods – seals and sea lions.
sightings are becoming less rare thanks to more people in the water
with cameras on their cell phones and a means to instantaneously
share a shark sighting with the world on social media. However,
contrary to dozens of media headlines, that doesn’t mean that
there’s been an “explosion” or “surge” in the populations
of great white sharks, Burgess said.
most difficult thing, I think, is getting people to realize that
recovery is such a prolonged process,” he said. “What we’re
seeing perhaps is a slight increase in sharks.”
thing we’re seeing is that the public opinion about sharks is
the 1975 release of the movie 'Jaws,' the general public felt that
'the only good shark was a dead shark.' However, in the 30 years that
have followed, this mentality has changed,” said Neil Hammerschlag,
co-author of a study
on the economic value of shark ecotourism and the importance of
including conservation efforts in long-term management plans. “A
growing number of people are turning their fear into fascination and
want to continue to see sharks in the wild."
to the study, a single reef shark could be valued at $73 a day alive
or more than $200,000 over a conservative 15-year life cycle. That
beats the one-time value of a pair of fins for shark fin soup, which
can range from $50 to $1,000 a bowl.
are part of the wondrous biodiversity of life on the planet,” said
Peterson. “By persisting and exceeding they provide wonder to us
all. Sharks are a fascination for people that exceeds most other
groups of organism, so absent the sharks from nature we’ll lose all
that particular form of enjoyment that we get from the diversity of
sharks and the stories associated with them.”
Are Shark Attacks Increasing off the N.C. Coast?
By Tess Malijenovsky
will likely be more shark attacks per year in the future here along the
N.C. coast. Though, experts say, an individual’s chance of being bitten
Over the last 20 years, there’s been an upward
trend in the number of shark attacks, says George Burgess, the curator
of the International Shark Attack File, and he suspects there will be
more “incidences” this decade than the last.
aren’t the only ones braving the water later into the winter season or
further up the coast. As ocean temperatures continue to rise, many
species are expanding their distributional range.
increase in water temperatures, one will expect there to be increases
in the number of sharks along the East Coast of the United States,
including North Carolina,” says Burgess.
“You’re going to have
more sharks in more areas encountering humans,” he says. “As a result
the answer is, of course, there will be more of these incidences
because a) you’re going to have a lot more people in the water and b)
you’re going to have more sharks in areas where they were not normally
found. We’ve already seen that in certain areas.”
references a series of great white shark attacks near Russia in the
northwest Pacific, where neither great whites nor people used to swim
because it was too cold.
Don’t freak out yet. Burgess says,
“Our chances of being bit as individuals actually decreases each year
because of the sheer volume of people in the water.
the fact that there’s less sharks in the water, we still continue to
get an increase in the number of attacks, and that’s simply because
we’re putting so many people in the water,” Burgess said.
12 tips to reduce the risk of a shark encounter: Tip compiled by the International Shark Attack File
Avoid being in the water from sunset to sunrise. This is when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
in a group, and do not wander too far from shore. Isolated individuals
are more likely to be attacked than large groups; in addition, the
farther you are from shore, the farther you are from help.
Consider your clothing: avoid wearing shiny jewelry, because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
Avoid brightly colored or patterned clothing, because sharks see contrast particularly well.
not enter waters being used by sport or commercial fisherman - sharks
can sense the smells emitted from bait at incredible distances.
entering waters with sewage output and/or entering the water if you are
bleeding. Such additions to the water can act as strong olfactory
attractants to sharks.
Know your facts. Porpoise sightings do
not indicate the absence of sharks. In fact, the opposite is often
true. Also be on the lookout for signs of bait fishes or feeding
activity - diving seabirds are good indicators of such action. Animals
that eat the same food items are often found in close proximity.
Remember, a predator is never too far from its prey.
Refrain from excess splashing while in the water, and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep drop-offs, as these are favorite hangouts for sharks.
not enter the water if sharks are known to be present, and evacuate the
water if sharks are seen while there. And, of course, do not harass a
shark if you see one.
Stay calm if you do see a shark, and
maintain your position in as quiet a manner as possible. Most sharks
merely are curious and will leave on their own.
Relax. You are
more likely to be injured by lightning than attacked by a shark. To
learn more about your relative risks, see: The Relative Risk of
Shark Attacks to Humans
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)