Feeding Frenzy

Sportfishing Digest — May 2003
By Capt. Patrick Sciacca

Feeding Frenzy
A recent study claims the Northwest Atlantic shark population is in rapid decline.

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Feeding Frenzy
• Part 2: Feeding Frenzy
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• Sportfishing Digest Index

In 1980 I was ten years old and my family went on vacation to Orlando, Florida, to visit Sea World. While we were there, a new exhibit called the Shark Encounter opened. The attraction consisted of a 60-foot, acrylic-windowed tank through which ran a moving sidewalk, with sharks swimming all around. I loved it. I repeatedly put my finger to the spankin’ new and nearly streak-free acrylic hoping a shark would approach my hand. The interactivity was great, but the glass between us made the sharks too removed for me. I’d always been fascinated by these predators and wanted to know more about them (especially when they’re on the other end of a rod and reel). Within a couple of months of my visit to Sea World, I got the chance to fish for sharks. I was hooked from the get-go, and I still fish for them several weeks each year.

I’ve always tried to be a responsible angler; while on occasion I’ve killed sharks for food, I have always stayed within the regulations. And over the last several years, I’ve adopted the practice of tag-and-release shark fishing on almost all trips. The tags are registered with the Apex Predators Program (http://na.nefsc.noaa.gov/sharks) out of Narragansett, Rhode Island. When I catch a shark, I insert a numbered tag in it via a tag stick; record its length, approximate weight, and sex; and send the data to the Apex researchers. If a tagged shark is caught, the tag can be removed, and info about the shark’s movements and its rate of growth can be calculated and used to help better manage the stocks.

Three summers ago I tagged a blue shark off Long Island, and last summer he was caught off the Flemish Cap, nearly 800 miles from where I’d tagged him. When my fish was recaptured, I was sent data about how much he had grown and how far he had traveled from the date I released him. I also learned that my fish had fallen victim to a longliner, and according to a new study, he was just one of many sharks that have recently died on longline hooks.

The study by Halifax, Nova Scotia’s, Dalhousie University suggests that both coastal and oceanic sharks of the Northwest Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada are in rapid decline as a result of both targeted and bycatch fishing. After two years of researching 15 years’ (1986 to 2001) worth of logbook data from the U.S. longlining fleet, which entailed accounting for more than 100 million hooks and 200,000 sets, the Dalhousie team concluded that scalloped hammerheads, great whites, and thresher sharks are in the greatest danger, with a 75-percent declination rate over the examined period. In addition, the mako, an ever-popular angler target, was down by 50 percent.

One of the most eye-opening conclusions came from Julia Baum, a marine ecologist who worked full time on the Dalhousie study. “ If we do something [to protect the sharks], it will take decades [for it to make a difference],” she says. “Secondly, there is no guarantee of recovery,” she explains, noting how a ten-year moratorium on heavily pressured cod stocks in Canada has produced less-than-impressive results. She adds that although U.S. longliners were the focus of the study, recreational anglers (fishermen like me) do factor into the decline of coastal sharks. To put it simply, we’re losing the top of the oceanic food chain.

Next page > Feeding Frenzy, Part 2 > Page 1, 2

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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