SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 16, September 2016 - Page 35

he dock at Montauk Marine Basin’s 46th Annual Shark Fishing tournament is equal

parts sporting event and science lab. A shark is strung up by its tail and weighed, the result eliciting cheers from the crowd, but not before a researcher scurries beneath with a bucket to collect the stomach contents that flow from the mouth. Nearby, beneath the cover of a small shed, a research team slices through layers of tough skin and muscle to remove oily livers, reproductive tissues, and chunks of spinal column, while a scientist records measurements and observations. Occasionally, one of the day’s anglers, beer in hand, pokes his head in to watch the process, or to ask how his catch will be used to further scientific knowledge.

Recreational fishing is not often thought to coincide with shark conservation. Yet, the scene on the eastern tip of New York that day is just one of many instances across the United States where scientists have entered into a beneficial partnership with anglers.

The U.S. is one of the largest recreational fisheries in the world, with 11 million saltwater anglers contributing over $60 billion to the economy annually. Interest in shark fishing spiked during the 1970s, when Jaws spawned a generation of anglers looking to do battle with man-eaters. Since then, increased research and awareness efforts have created a shift towards sustainability, driving scientists and anglers together in a mutual interest to protect sharks as a resource. Still, the question of how much catching sharks for sport can contribute to their conservation is a complex one.

As the chief of the Apex Predators Program at NOAA fisheries’ Narragansett, Rhode Island lab, Dr. Nancy Kohler is part of a team that has been attending shark fishing tournaments for over 30 years. The biological samples they collect go towards gathering long-term information about populations in the region through determining what they eat, their age, and what size they are when they mature, factors that are critical to creating effective management strategies.

T

Dr. Kohler also utilizes the opportunity for education, discussing the latest research and regulations at pre-tournament captains’ meetings. Each boat receives a packet containing information on shark identification, sizing, and best catch-and-release practices. She also supplies tags from the National Marine Fisheries Service and information on their cooperative tagging program. This nationwide effort provides recreational and commercial fishers with tags to attach to sharks they release, and encourages them to report information on tagged sharks they capture. Upon recapture, the tags provide data on population sizes, sex composition, and migration patterns. With insufficient data as one of the largest barriers to effective management, tagging is a way for fishermen to help fill in critical gaps.

Still, Dr. Kohler is quick to state that her work does not justify these tournaments; it is simply opportunistic sampling that has evolved into a successful partnership over time. “These

SEVENSEAS - 35