Letting Sharks Off the Hook

The public's evolving relationship with sharks has long included wrangling and killing for sport. This may be the last summer such behavior is applauded.
another Keith Bedford Reuters.jpg
Keith Bedford/Reuters

Discovery Channel's Shark Week, usually the primary excuse for shark-related news content each year, has been upstaged.

Last week, Elliot Sudal became an overnight celebrity after spending 45 minutes wrestling a shark out of the water and onto the beach in Nantucket. Sudal's stunt drew some criticism from activists who argue that the 200-pound sand shark he wrestled faced a reduced chance of survival after the encounter. But in the context of traditional shark-human interaction, and particularly of other shark-human contests being debated this summer, the video actually conveyed something positive: that a shark fight can be entertaining even if both parties come out alive.

Sudal is an experienced fisherman and a conservationist; he has a degree in environmental science and biology, and he's not interested in eating or killing sharks -- he just likes wrestling with them. "Especially the big ones, the big females, those are the ones you want to keep alive," he says, because the largest sharks are often females at the height of their reproductive capacity. Sharks don't even taste that good, says Sudal, who once tried a black tip shark in Florida, where he does most of his fishing. "I could just go and catch a striped bass, which is much more delicious." He enjoys catching sharks because "it's like the pinnacle of big game fishing. It's an intense, exciting battle, and it's cool to see the sharks and see what's out there. I've been fishing all my life and there's a lot of work that goes into it and a whole culture behind it that I enjoy."

"Obviously," he says, "it's not the best thing in the world for a shark, but, I let 'em go, I try to be as careful as possible, I only have them out of the water for thirty seconds to a minute. I mean, they're sharks - they're pretty tough! Even NOAA has a shark tagging program that emphasizes catch and release. I feel like catch-and-release shark fishing isn't the worst thing ever."

"Catch and release," in fact, is a hot topic in shark sport these days, which previously has been much bloodier than Sudal's one-man match.

The sport of shark fishing has its roots in Montauk, where charter-boat captain Frank Mundus harpooned great whites in the 1950s, coined the term "monster fishing," and reportedly inspired the character Quint in Peter Benchley's Jaws. In the decades since, Montauk has been a hub for traditional shark fishing tournaments that draw crowds of anglers and spectators. Finding the sharks in the ocean isn't the crux of this sport. It's fairly easy to attract sharks from late May to July in the Northeast by chumming. The fun, according to enthusiasts, comes from hauling a shark in once hooked -- an affair that can last over an hour. The competitions offer cash prizes, by the pound, to those who bring in the biggest fishes -- typically 300-plus-pound Mako and Thresher sharks. Historically, the only way the general public has been able to take part in these events is by ogling at the sharks that get strung up and weighed onshore at the end of the day.

At this year's Monster Shark event, hosted by the Boston Big Game Fishing Club in Oak Bluffs, a total of just twelve individual sharks were "taken," or killed. Tournament director and BBGFC President Steve James proudly emphasizes his strict minimum size requirements that fishermen must follow as they choose which sharks to throw back in the ocean or bring back to shore to weigh in. According to the BBGFC website, 97-98% of sharks caught during the tournament are released alive.

But though the tournament's impact on the local shark population would seem, from these numbers, to be fairly small, the opposition among the townspeople of Oak Bluffs is significant. Six months ago residents petitioned for the Monster Shark Tournament to either go "all catch and release" or get off the island. Animal rights activists have been showing up at this event for years in protest of, in the words of Vineyard resident Sally Apy, "a digusting spectacle that is clearly so corrupt in so many ways."

Part of the reason for the opposition, though, comes from what happens to the sharks after release, according to Apy. Because the fishing occurs with various types of tackle, including j-hooks that tear into shark tails, throats and stomachs, post-release mortality is a given for at least a fraction of the sharks. A NOAA-sponsored study published in 2010 -- one of the few available on this topic -- found roughly 26% post-release mortality rates for Threshers hooked by the tail. Even hookless wrestling like Sudal's can be harmful, because sharks have difficulty breathing when being dragged backwards.

Some tournaments, such as the 31-year-old Ocean City Shark Tournament in Maryland, have started requiring fishermen to use only circle hooks, which embed in shark jaws and are thought to increase a shark's chances for post-release survival. James refuses to make his fishermen use circle hooks, insisting that there is no research to back up the idea of lower post-release mortality rates associated with circle hooks. "It's not that I'm against circle hooks, not at all. I use them all the time on my boat when I fish for Bluefin tuna. I handed them out at my tournament - everyone got at least ten circle hooks. But at the end of the day, it's not clear that the circle hook is doing a whole lot."

James has been in this business for over thirty years, and says he cares deeply about fisheries management. He sits on numerous state and federal committees where he works alongside respected marine biologists and policymakers. But he has not, so far, been open to what other scientists say is a legitimate problem with his signature event.

The problem with the tournament, says Sharon Young, Marine Issues Coordinator for the Humane Society, "is not so much the carnage, but the messaging behind what they're doing." Dr. Bob Hueter, a shark biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory, echoes Young: "I am against kill tournaments because they send a particular message, and it's a message that sharks don't need right now." There was a time, decades ago, when Hueter would participate in research and data collection at kill tournaments, but he says that such practices are not necessary today, and he believes that tagging and tracking live sharks is more valuable than collecting samples from dead ones. He is not against commercial or recreational shark fishing, though, provided there are certain regulations in place -- in other words, he is not out to protect the life of every individual shark. Few opponents of "kill tournaments," as they call non-catch-and-release events, believe that it is simply wrong to kill an individual shark. What troubles these advocates -- or "the people with feelings," as James calls them -- is the cavalier spirit of kill tournaments. They may be small in scale, says Hueter, but because they are so public and high-profile, they can undermine the work of conservationists who have labored for years to raise awareness and combat public perception of sharks. Although the fishermen involved in kill tournaments are quick to point out that they care about conservation, too -- after all, there would be no sport fishing without sustained populations of the target species -- the message is easily obscured among the gory visuals of flesh and blood on the docks at kill tournaments. In previous years, the tournament has been broadcast on ESPN.

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A carcass on the docks at a shark tournament in Montauk in 2007. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

James gives out prizes for three species of shark: the Mako, Thresher, and Porbeagle. An article in the Vineyard Gazette last week generated comments like one from Christine Powers of Waltham, MA, who calls the event "the Gallows on the Harbor spectacle." Wrote Powers: "A harmless 20-year-old porbeagle shark has died in the prime of her life. Hopefully, next year's tournament, if it returns, will be strictly catch and release. A few years ago, while returning to our vacation rental from an early dinner at the Ocean View, we happened upon the gory weigh-in and turned away in disgust."

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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