Jaws!

12 Aug 2015
Great white shark. Credit: Sharkdiver.com/Licensed under Public Domain

Great white shark. Credit: Sharkdiver.com/Licensed under Public Domain

The recent reports from the U.S. East Coast and from Australia on the dramatic increase in shark attacks on people have generated this column.

Sharks are strange beasts; apart from the great variety of their species – some 40 of them are allegedly managed in the Atlantic by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) – they're the most ancient of all fish.

Some large sharks, such as great whites, white-tip and bull sharks, are dangerous to men, killing from time to time, or maiming hapless individuals. Most are cosmopolite and their ecology, biology, and enigmatic behaviour, including their worldwide migrations, are much researched subjects. The growing appetite in some parts of SE Asia for shark-fin soup has caused some of their populations to become apparently diminished in recent decades. Even so, they reign at the top of the marine food pyramid, devoured only by killer whales and us.

Fins
The burgeoning shark fin market has spawned laws prohibiting removing shark fins and discarding the body. Towards the year 2000, a limited access permit system significantly reduced the US East and South Coast shark fishing fleet. In 2010, it was followed by the Shark Conservation Act, requiring that all sharks be landed with all their fins on. Also, licensed commercial and recreational fishermen can keep only a limited number of sharks per trip. The USA’s NOAA has since been playing a leading role internationally in implementing legal protection for five species of sharks: oceanic whitetip, scalloped, smooth, great hammerhead, and the porbeagle shark - all of them dangerous to people.

According to NOAA Fisheries, sharks, as one of the ocean’s top predators, apart from recreational value, are vital to the natural balance of marine ecosystems: "The United States with some of the strongest shark management is able to conserve and sustainably manage domestic shark fisheries in both the Atlantic Ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, and the Pacific Ocean".

NOAA Fisheries is cooperating internationally towards shark conservation and management, and accordingly, acting to bring them to a healthy level. In 2014, NOAA published a study which was optimistic about the recovery of white sharks in the Northwest Atlantic, and in the meantime the whites were happily making the first half of 2015 a champion in shark attacks, some fatal.

Up the food chain
Off N. Carolina, Florida, and Massachusetts, the boom in great white sharks began when the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 triggered a growth in the grey seal population. The Canadian stock of grey seals, shared with New England, being subject to only subsistence hunting in SE Canada, is estimated to grow by 6-9% per year.

More seals means more great white sharks. They just love seals. More sharks means more attacks on people. In the last five years, six people have died in US waters. In 2015, up to this July, the Carolinas have already seen 12 shark attacks, compared with a normal average of four to six for the region in an entire year. Australia, where sharks are protected too, reported 23 attacks throughout 2014, five fatal and 14 causing injury.

Nostalgia
Reading all this, I couldn't help but recall the old times of the 1950s and 1960s, when,  off Israel's coasts, we considered large sharks enemies of our fish, our nets, and the human race.

Unabashed, I was picking up a small shark from the catch pile, opening its belly and fitting it as bleeding bait to a large ‘shark’ hook attached by means of a 5-6-ft long steel leader to a 50-fath. long strong line, the end of which tied (just in case) to a small barrel-buoy. The baited hook was offered to a wolf-pack of sharks, which followed our trawler to feed on the discards jettisoned while catch sorting.

In no time, one of the beasts was taking the hook, starting the fun. Well, you don't play too long with a 2-3m shark that swallowed a 6in hook hanging on a steel leader and a 4mm nylon cord. As soon as you got him alongside you put a noose around him using a snap-ring, slide it over his dorsal fin and tighten it at the tail. Once tight, you let go the hook-end haul the shark by the tail. With all the insides pressing on his brain, he stops fighting. Our hunt was ending when the shark was hauled by a single whip from the mast top. While the helpless shark was being lifted, using a winch barrel, I was sticking a knife at the rear of his belly, held to it and the winch did the rest. With the belly slotted, the insides were falling out, cut off the shark and thus let go to the other sharks' great enjoyment.

Rusty
Captain Russell "Rusty" Howard Hudson, of Daytona Beach, Florida, a member of the American Elasmobranch Society (AES), has been hunting for sharks for over 30 years. He knows them and their behaviour inside out and could teach all the shark scientists more than a lesson or two.  

Rusty blames restrictive coastal state’s shark fishing rules, and creation of US shark sanctuaries, for the increase of coastal shark attacks. Such rules came as a result of "questionable stock assessment results, long rebuilding plans, reduced quotas, lowering trip limits", protecting some shark species, limited access permits, and more. In his professional opinion, the decades of under-fishing sharks has led to the unintended consequence of significantly increased populations of US Atlantic Large Coastal Sharks (LCS) near beaches, leading to more shark attacks over the past decade in the US Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions. The expanding shark populations – says Rusty – that aren’t effectively culled are negatively interacting with many US saltwater fisheries, causing large financial losses.

Well, sharks have dwelled in our planet's seas and oceans for about 50 million years, before the human apes started killing each other, and they'll survive us for another tens of millions of years. Maybe, the human race should leave the sharks alone and instead stop the killing of people?

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