Reeling for Spring Break

Spring Break is the student’s dream: sand, sun, and no homework or responsibilities for days.  I do not typically take part in the trek down to Myrtle Beach, the Keys, or the Bahamas, but I do live vicariously through the Facebook updates of those who do.

I was recently navigating through the waves of information on my newsfeed, when I was stopped by a disturbing image.  The mouth of a shark was being pried open to show its teeth, which shined bright against the blood, and an old classmate of mine was kneeling beside it, pole in one hand and a smirk on his newly tanned face.

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Now let me stop there for a moment.  I am no stranger to gore.  I grew up in Western New York in a family that hunts and I have watched Game of Thrones.  So why did this death horrify me?

It was not the smiles of those who crowded around the shark.  This I have seen in pictures of my family posing with a freshly caught deer.  And it was not the blood that speckled the white jaws.  I think it was the sheer shock of seeing a creature I watched reverently on Shark Week splayed out on the sand, dominated by a man that had been the high school class clown.

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The picture was a slap in the face, one that continued to mock me with similar updates over the next few days.  So why did I not just delete these guys who were clearly making me uncomfortable?  Because if I had, they would have continued to ruin much more than my silly attempts to sunbathe via Facebook.

Over half our planet is covered in water, so many believe that the ocean’s resources are unlimited.  We can splash all we want to, boat all we want to, and fish all we want to, right?

The NOAA Fisheries claim that in 2011, nearly 2.7 million sharks were caught recreationally by anglers in the U.S.  Of these captured, about 96% were released back into the oceans.  However, that tiny 4% adds up to be over 100,000 sharks.  When you begin piling up the world’s catches, the number of dead quickly grows.

Reports show that the Oceanic White Tip, once one of the most common sharks in the world, is nearly extinct in the Gulf of Mexico, a population crash of almost 99%.  Similar destruction is seen in the Atlantic hammerheads (a drop of 89%) and the Gulf’s silky sharks (90%).

So why are people casting out for sharks?  Big game fishing has a strong pull, with contests advertised along popular beaches and celebrities flaunting their catches.  One man, Peter Burban, recently made headlines after catching a 1,000lb hammerhead during a Florida competition.  During an interview, Burban states, “If you catch one huge fish, it’s like a drug, you cannot stop. It’s like motivation to catch bigger and bigger fish.”

Big fish! A Florida angler reeled in the catch of his life as he fished off the South Florida cost

Burban proudly stated that he was able to safely relocate the shark back into the ocean because he had used a circle hook, a tactic many fishermen are using to ensure a successful catch and release.  But is there more to this “safe” release than meets the eye?

The University of Miami has recently discovered that the tactic can prove deadly to certain species of shark, including the hammerhead.  Austin Gallagher, head author of the project, says, “Our results show that while some species, like tiger sharks, can sustain and even recover from minimal catch and release fishing, other sharks, such as hammerheads are more sensitive. Our study also revealed that just because a shark swims away after it is released, doesn’t mean that it will survive the encounter.”

Figure credit: A. Gallagher, et al.

Sharks do not give you steak.  They are not running into cars on the highway or tearing up your garden.  There is not a surplus population and the DEC has not issued a control on the animals.  The only reward you receive is bragging rights, and who really wants to gloat about annihilating a species over Spring Break?  I for one would rather get some sun.

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