I'm a product of the Jaws generation, and while I was growing up on Long Island's south shore, my head was filled with dreams of catching big sharks. The standard gameplan was to make for the deep onboard my dad's boat and hook up a monster. After we caught the toothy critter, he'd be turned into steaks and then grilled over an open flame with some lemon while we all celebrated our victory over the menacing man-eater. Over the years I continued the tradition, and truth be told, not one fish was a man-eater; but eventually I learned I'm the one who's been the real threat.
These days my main angling pursuits involve tuna and billfish, but I still fish for sharks a couple of times a year during tournaments. And for me it's become an almost exclusively catch-and-release fishery. One reason is that tournaments have started to add prize money in release categories, which makes it more attractive to enter. But mostly it's because ten years ago, at one of these events, I saw a display for the Apex Predator Investigation (API) Cooperative Shark Tagging Program (CSTP), which is based out of the National Marine Fisheries Service's Narragansett, Rhode Island, laboratory. When I inquired about the program, the Apex staffers informed me that they would provide shark tags and information cards for any tournament participants and would show me how to make a tag stick if I didn't want to buy one. The premise is that if a team caught a fish they weren't going to take to the scales, the crew could tag it, gather some measurements, jot down the data on the card, and send the tag data back to the lab. The reward? The crew releases a healthy shark into the wild to reproduce and ensure future fishermen will be able to catch these awesome animals. The information then helps scientists learn more about this prehistoric species.
And of course, there's the hat. Yes, a hat. If a shark with your tag is recaptured, the Apex staff sends you a tagging- program hat for doing your part for science. I got my first one in 2001. I'd tagged a blue shark about 40-plus miles off Long Island, and one year later the fish was recaptured hundreds of miles away off the Flemish Cap by a Spanish longlining vessel. The recapture meant that my fish was dead. However, the information I provided on the initial tag day combined with data gathered by the longlining vessel helped Apex scientists determine how big the shark had grown over that year as well as its migration pattern.
Such knowledge can lead to better fisheries' management. For example, if enough of one species of tagged shark is caught in one particular area at a certain time of year, scientists can make a case for closing commercial and/or recreational types of fishing in that area during designated times, which helps keep the shark population at a sustainable level.
I've only been at this tag thing for a decade, but the program has been in full swing since 1962, when it started out with just 100 volunteers. Today there are nearly 7,000 volunteers ranging from the Northeast to the Gulf Coast and even across the pond. Over the years scientists have managed to gather significant data on these magnificent creatures.
According to API, during the first 40 years of the program, more than 171,000 sharks representing more than 50 different species received tags. Of those, around 10,000 sharks have been recaptured. Most of these are blue sharks. Why? My best guess is because they have no commercial value (they don't taste very good), so while blue sharks may be killed as bycatch, they're not targeted like other species such as mako and thresher, both of which are quite edible.
It's also interesting to learn that the tagging program has shown that some species of sharks, like the blue and tiger, have been known to travel nearly 4,000 nautical miles from where they were originally tagged. Others such as the bigeye, thresher, and shortfin mako have traveled as far as 3,000 nautical miles from their initial capture. And yet others like the scalloped hammerhead and spiny dogfish never go farther than several hundred yards. All of this valuable data is the result of anglers not gaffing a fish, but breaking out a pen and the tape measure instead.
API has also learned that sharks are sometimes "once bitten, twice shy." One tagged shark was recaptured 28 years after its first encounter with anglers. Others like the dusky and bignose shark have been tagged and averaged between ten and 20 years of liberty before recapture.
Tagging is a challenge, though. Not only do you have to battle the fish, which is always a good time, but then you need to handle it with kid gloves, place the tag in a heavily muscled area where it won't interfere with the shark's movement, then release it unharmed. And sometimes tagging a "green" shark can be more difficult than sinking a gaff—at least that's been my experience.
So does participating in a tagging program help solve today's fisheries problems? It can't fix all of them, but it definitely can help. The next time you're out sharking, before you decide to gaff that massive, maybe pregnant mako, remember that you may be eating steaks tonight, but you won't be doing anything to ensure your kids will have something to catch tomorrow.
This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.