SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 16, September 2016 - Page 36

simply opportunistic sampling that has evolved into a successful partnership over time. “These tournaments were happening anyway,” she says, “and these sharks live so long, and are so hard to catch, when else would you have this many samples coming in?”

While so-called kill tournaments were once the norm, the Northeastern seaboard is one of the last places where they are still popular. The sport of shark fishing has its roots here, in 1950s Montauk, where charter-boat captain Frank Mundus famously harpooned white sharks, supposedly inspiring the character Quint in the novel version of Jaws. Accordingly, the region is home to some of the oldest and largest tournaments in the country.

These tournaments have long come under fire from environmental groups, and even some scientists. Dr. Joanna Borucinska, a professor at the University of Hartford, says although her research uses some samples collected at the tournaments, she would be happy to see them end. “There’s other opportunities for this research to be done without the tournaments,” she says, stating she is against fishing for sport, “It comes down to whether you think that animals have a right to be able to live and be healthy unless we need them for food.”

Dr. Greg Skomal, senior biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, takes a different approach. He does not oppose kill tournaments, so long as they use the sharks for food (as most do), and follow the rules set down by fisheries managers, such as minimum size requirements and bans on harvesting certain species. “The state and federal government have put conservation measures in place, if they adhere to these regulations, then fishing is O.K.”

Dr. Skomal has worked extensively with recreational and commercial fishers, and says they have contributed information necessary for creating sustainable fisheries probably more than any other group through providing data, platforms, and expertise. “Just like hunters,” Skomal says, “fishermen have a much greater respect for conservation than people would anticipate.” Unlike hunters, however, anglers have the option of releasing their prize alive.

This was the idea behind the Shark’s Eye Tournament, of which Dr. Skomal was an integral part. Run out of Montauk Marine Basin by its late owner, Carl Darenberg Jr., the fishing tournament was devoted entirely to tagging and releasing sharks for science, the first of its kind in the region. In addition to the hundreds of sharks affixed with conventional dart tags, Dr. Skomal and his team helped tag 13 sharks with donated satellite tags, which transmit a signal each time the shark breaks the surface. The tournament ran successfully for three years, two of which were under the guidance of the charismatic Mr. Darenberg Jr.’s children after his death. Although the momentum ran out this year in the face of other more established contests, the fact that it occurred in the birthplace of the sport may be an indicator of where fishing is headed.

In William Fudora’s home state of Florida, catch-and-keep style shark tournaments are all but extinct. As president of the South Florida Shark Club and founder of the Shorebound Anglers’ Alliance, his Big Hammer Challenge is entirely shore-based, and entirely catch-and-release. Spanning four states in the Southeast and lasting over a month, the tournament awards prizes based on length, garnered from date-stamped photos submitted by participants.

Fudora spent his childhood in the 1970s on Miami’s South Beach Pier, fishing sometimes late into the night, fueled by his mother’s sandwiches and the anticipation of the next big catch. Watching the thrilling spectacle of his friend battling a large shark inspired him to do the same; once he did, he was, for lack of a better word, hooked.

Fudora’s home in a suburb north of Miami is a monument to South Florida shark fishing. Faded photographs of smiling men next to giant sharks dot his mantle, jaws lay scattered across his table, and a mold of a hammerhead is suspended over the tiki bar in his yard. Fudora sees the jaws more than anything as a relic of a previous era; he claims he hasn’t killed a shark in years, and that people who continue to do so have a “mental hang-up.” “I enjoy the fight, but I love the animal, I don’t want to kill it,” he says, noting he’s given most of his jaws away. Fudora now uses his club and tournament to advocate for sustainable fishing practices, emphasizing catch-and-release, and trains anglers in a “two minute drill” of measuring, photographing, tagging, and releasing a shark, all while keeping it in the water.

For Fudora, fishing isn’t just a hobby, but a part of his identity, and he demonstrates a fierce passion for protecting fishermen’s rights. He has seen increasing attempts by town governments in Florida to ban shark fishing from their beaches, often without the legal right to do so, a move he feels is motivated by negative publicity and unfounded fears of increased shark attacks. Instead, he wants to see more regulations aimed at commercial fishing vessels, which he says are the ones really decimating populations.

Recent studies have shown that Fudora is more of the rule than the exception when it comes to modern-day shark anglers. A 2016 paper published in Aquatic Conservation found a strong conservation ethic and understanding of threats to sharks amongst avid anglers in a nationwide survey of recreational fishermen. Most respondents practiced catch-and-release, with 89 percent agreeing with the importance of releasing sharks in good condition, and 80 percent saying they would be willing to use special gear and techniques to minimize damage to the animal. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed agreed that having viable shark populations is important, though opinions were split on whether further regulations on fishing were necessary. While the study suggests that these attitudes could be used as a tool to promote conservation, it also alludes to areas of conflict.

According to the survey, few recreational anglers perceived their sport to be a threat to shark populations, with the vast majority pointing the finger at commercial vessels. While globally, commercial fishing certainly has a greater impact on shark populations, within the U.S., recreational anglers may be underestimating their own contribution. According to the 2013 Fisheries of the U.S. report, recreational anglers killed more large (non-dogfish) sharks by weight than commercial fishermen, about 4.5 million pounds versus 3.2 million pounds, a trend that repeated in 2014, though to a lesser extent. While these statistics do not account for unwanted species caught by commercial vessels and dumped at sea (though most are landed), it suggests that a many people with a single hook can in fact have an impact akin to one person with many hooks.