To catch a shark, stick close to shore. That’s Tom Reutter and Brandon Naeve’s philosophy on a hot, bright May morning in the Gulf of Mexico, off Boca Grande, Florida. While other competitors in the weekend-long tournament have motored out to deeper depths, the sportfishing guides’ boat is rocking in chest-deep aquamarine saltwater, a stone’s throw from a white sand beach. The nearby “No Swimming” signs hint that they might be on to something.
Yesterday, using dead fish as bait, they enticed a seven-foot bull shark to bite. Today when the line goes taut, Naeve fights to reel in an eight-foot lemon shark. Surfacing, it thrashes and bites the side of the boat with its razor-sharp teeth. Named for its yellowish-green coloring, the blunt-snouted shark will eat just about anything in the near-shore waters it inhabits: stingrays, crustaceans, smaller sharks, even seabirds. Its broad appetite, however, doesn’t extend to people: The International Shark Attack Files report only 10 unprovoked attacks ever, worldwide, by lemon sharks on humans, none fatal.
Even so, it’s not a creature you’d want to dally with. Reutter quickly secures the shark with a tail gaff beside the boat while a trained observer looks on. It snaps at the measuring rod as Naeve calls out its length, and he hustles to implant an ID tag beside its dorsal fin before setting it free. Once unleashed, it disappears back into the ocean.
Thirty miles away, in Punta Gorda, the drama streams live on a jumbo screen. Hundreds of people in shorts, sundresses, and flipflops watch with rapt attention, breaking into applause as the shark slips away. Then they turn back to the onshore activities. There’s an impressive collection of Jaws movie memorabilia, including gruesome life-sized dummies used as shark-bite victims, and a Mote Marine Laboratory mobile aquarium. A dozen kids wait to have sharks painted on their cheeks by a mermaid with a sparkly pink fishtail and gold pasties covering her otherwise bare breasts. One night Jaws shows under the stars; the other, a rock band plays at a street party.
This is the Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge—a new twist on an old sport that’s being replicated from Florida to Long Island. In traditional catch-and-kill tournaments, anglers haul their catch to shore, where the dead behemoths are weighed, measured, and strung up side-by-side, like contestants in a bloody beauty competition. In new science-based catch-and-release tournaments, everyone wins: Scientists collect data about these poorly understood predators, anglers enjoy the thrill of the chase and vie for cash prizes, spectators watch the action live, and sharks swim away with their lives.
“Rather than killing these large sharks, we want to track them,” says Robert Hueter, the tournament’s scientific director and head of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. Learning where they feed, breed, and raise young, and identifying particularly destructive fishing hotspots, is vital to developing sorely needed science-based management plans. “We’re still largely blind, reaching in the dark, trying to figure out what’s going on.”
As apex predators, sharks have been masters of the undersea universe for millions of years, helping keep the ocean ecosystem healthy. But humans have relegated them to one of the sea’s most vulnerable residents, thus disrupting the entire marine ecosystem, from corals to seabirds. Of the more than 400 shark species in the world’s oceans, nearly one-third are threatened. Populations of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks have declined by more than 90 percent in some areas. The commercial fishing industry kills an estimated one in 15 sharks a year globally, though recreational fishing takes a toll, too. Catch-and-release shark tournaments are the latest effort to help stem the decline and shift public attitudes from fear of sharks to fear for them.
Anglers had little interest in sharks before the mid-1970s. Then Jaws hit movie theaters in 1975. In the blockbuster thriller a great white shark terrorizes the people of Amity, a fictitious New England island, playing on the dread of unseen monsters lurking in their midst. After its release, droves of fishermen took to the ocean almost as if on a crusade.
They were wildly successful. Within a few years sport fishermen had caught hundreds of thousands of sharks, and kill tournaments proliferated. By the mid-1980s commercial fisheries joined the pursuit, taking sharks for their fins and, to a lesser extent, meat (high levels of urea require that it be handled properly so it doesn’t spoil).
Today an estimated 100 million sharks die annually as bycatch, target catch, or for their fins, prized as a delicacy in China and as a supposed aphrodisiac (despite evidence that they’re full of neurotoxins). Once fishermen slice off the fins, they typically drop the wounded animal in the water, where it suffocates or becomes shark food itself. Sport fishing isn’t nearly as destructive, but it still makes a dent in dwindling populations: In U.S. waters, sport fishermen killed about 200,000 sharks in 2011, according to NOAA.
“Recreational fishing was responsible for the early declines,” says Hueter. Anglers took the largest animals, which also happen to be the older, sexually mature individuals of the slow-growing family. “By the 1990s sharks were becoming harder and harder to catch, and they decreased in size.”
Yet kill tournaments live on. Dozens of competitions with names like Mako/Thresher Mania on Long Island hand out hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes each year and send the message that the only good shark is a dead one.
To help change public attitudes, brothers Sean and Brooks Paxton dreamed up the idea of transforming kill tournaments into a spectator sport. They fished with their grandfather on Chesapeake Bay whenever their family—a band—wasn’t on the road. “We saw Jaws and wanted to get closer to sharks,” says Sean, explaining their fascination with the apex predators. Combining their entertainment industry experience and a practical conservation ethic, they launched Think Out Loud Productions, which organizes events that support science, education, and sustainability.
While some of the 50 Ultimate Shark Challenge participants, mostly the younger ones, have only ever practiced catch-and-release, others have had to come around to the sport. Take fishing guide Bucky Dennis. In 2006 he landed a record-setting, 1,280-pound, 14.5-foot hammerhead in Boca Grande Pass. During the five or so hours it took to reel her in, she towed the fishing boat 12 miles. He donated the carcass to the Mote Marine Laboratory (which doesn’t encourage killing sharks), where a necropsy revealed one reason she was so big: She was pregnant with 55 pups, all dead.
“Catching a world-record shark helped my business, but I got a lot of flack for killing it, too,” says Dennis, 43. “Now I live-release everything I catch. I want sharks to come back and keep healthy.”
Tracking sharks in the vast ocean isn’t as easy as, say, following caribou migrations or even the routes of migratory birds that summer, winter, and stop over in huge numbers. To gain some insight into their movements, for the past half-century biologists have been tagging sharks, as ornithologists have long done with birds. Hueter’s team alone has tagged more than 20,000 since the 1980s. NOAA estimates that more than 221,000 sharks of 52 species have been tagged in Atlantic waters. About six percent have been recaptured, allowing biologists to make inferences about which species occupy a given area, and revealing that while some species appear to stick close to home, others, like blue sharks, travel thousands of miles. One sand shark was recaptured nearly 28 years after it had first been caught.
Yet conventional tagging doesn’t provide enough of the hard data needed to convince policy makers to put protections in place. New devices that allow scientists to spy on the secret lives of sharks remotely are starting to fill the gap.
In the Ultimate Shark Challenge, anglers affix conventional tags to every shark they catch longer than five feet. But if they bring up a species scientists want to follow closely—say, a hammerhead or a tiger shark—they alert the science boat. It speeds over so the researchers can attach a satellite tag as quickly as possible. Stress and strain cause a buildup of lactic acid—too much, and the shark might swim off only to die hours or days later.
Satellite tags record data, including depth and location, for months, then pop off, float to the surface, and beam the information directly to scientists’ computers. They’re providing a wealth of information. For example, great white sharks undertake 6,200-mile round-trip transoceanic migrations. Whale sharks dive more than a half-mile deep, likely in search of food. Basking sharks don’t hibernate, as long thought, but head south for the winter. Moving forward, combining satellite tags with other cutting-edge technology could uncover even more secrets. Mote biologists have actually pinpointed when two nurse sharks were mating; devices called accelerometers (used in Wii remote controls) showed that the female was upside down beneath the male, indicating that they were making whoopee. Pairing the technologies could provide data on when and where mating takes place.
Neil Hammerschlag, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami, is collaborating on a game-changing tag. Currently in the prototype stage, it beams information every few seconds with the help of a solar-powered battery, and could last for years or even decades. If successful, it should provide unprecedented information about life cycles and identify nurseries and hunting grounds—all critical for meaningful policy and management. “You can’t protect these animals wherever they go,” says Hammerschlag, who has done extensive tagging. “But you can have a big impact if you protect areas where they aggregate to feed or give birth.”
Oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet, but less than 1 percent is currently protected. Hammerschlag is optimistic that marine protected areas based on sound science and with strict regulations will continue to develop, albeit slowly. “It’s working for birds,” he says. “Some birds make 10,000-kilometer migrations between breeding and overwintering habitats, but protecting small patches that are critical works.”
Meanwhile, since March, five species, including porbeagles and scalloped hammerheads, now fall under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which could save these threatened species from total collapse. As Audubon went to press, New York was poised to join California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Illinois, and Maryland in banning the fin trade. And since 2010, 142 of the country’s more than 10,000 marinas have joined the Shark-Friendly Marina Initiative, agreeing to ban killing or landing sharks.
On the fishing front, repellents might help cut down on the tens of millions killed as bycatch each year by longline operations. Releasing a chemical based on extracts from dead sharks has been shown to work in laboratory tests. Also under investigation are magnets, which repel sharks by overwhelming their electrical sensors—gel-filled pores called ampullae of Lorenzini. (In hammerheads, the sensors are spread over the animal’s wide, mallet-shaped head, enabling it to detect stingrays buried in the sand and aiding with navigation.)
All these breakthroughs are occurring while studies are teasing out sharks’ role in marine ecosystems. Mounting evidence indicates that there are cascading ecological effects when top-level predators decline. A recent investigation looked at four reef systems in the Pacific Islands, ranging from hosting a robust shark population to having few, if any, because of overfishing. Where sharks were abundant, other fish and coral thrived. When they were absent, algae choked the reef nearly to death and biodiversity plummeted.
Overfishing sharks, such as the bull, great white, and hammerhead, along the Atlantic Coast has led to an explosion of the rays, skates, and small sharks they eat, another study found. Some of those creatures, in turn, are devouring shellfish and possibly tearing up seagrass while they forage, destroying feeding grounds for birds and nurseries for fish.
“To have healthy populations of healthy seabirds and shorebirds, we need a healthy marine environment,” says Mike Sutton, Audubon California executive director and a Shark-Friendly Marina Initiative board member. “We’re not going to have that without sharks.”
Back at the marina, competitors gather with friends and family, awaiting the final results and sharing tales of luring sharks from the deep—intentionally and not.
C.J. Wickersham, 23, a first-time participant, knows what it’s like to be shark bait. As he drinks a beer with his mom in the bar, his shorts hide a scar covering his upper left thigh—a 15-inch semicircle imprint of a bull shark’s bite. While spearfishing the previous autumn, a 10-foot shark clamped down on his leg (Mote biologists estimated its size by the bite marks). He punched its nose, and his friends pulled him out of the water onto a boat, tied a tourniquet around his leg, and took him to shore, where he was airlifted to a hospital and received 800 stitches. “I love fishing,” he says with a shy shrug. “I’m not going to be afraid of the ocean.”
In the end, Reutter and Naeve’s lemon shark put them over the top, and they take first place. “We’ll definitely be back next year,” says Naeve, grinning as he holds the oversized check for $8,450.
Team Budweiser, which finished first in 2011, didn’t place at all. But team members Chris Slattery and David Hutcherson, both tanned, 30-something sportfishing guides, take it in stride. “This is the only shark tournament we’ve fished, and we’ll be back,” says Slattery, explaining that the conservation angle is what hooked him.
“There’s no reason to do kill tournaments,” adds Hutcherson. “If you’re killing what you’re catching, you’re ruining your business, not to mention the overall ocean.”
This year Hueter and the Paxtons tweaked the tournament. Rather than a weekend-long event, they stretched it over the prime shark-fishing period, from mid-May through summer’s end. “The competition continues,” says Hueter, “but this will allow us to put more resources and focus on better meeting the scientific goals—particularly putting satellite tags on the species we want to learn more about, like hammerheads.” It might also shed light on post-release survivorship, something both Hueter and Hammerschlag are studying because so little is known about how sharks fare once they’re set free.
In the meantime, catch-and-release shark tournaments with a science component continue to catch on elsewhere, with a half-dozen scheduled this summer. For the first time, a large-scale competition is taking place in Montauk, Long Island, in July. “To get those guys to accept a catch-and-release tournament is a huge step,” says Hueter. “That area up there—Montauk, Martha’s Vineyard—that is a true epicenter of traditional shark kill tournaments.”
In fact, Martha’s Vineyard residents voted to make its 27-year-old Monster Shark Tournament catch-and-release for the first time ever in 2014, though there’s no plan to do satellite tagging.
You have to think Jaws author Peter Benchley would approve. He set his book on Long Island, and the movie was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard. Benchley later used his fame to help promote marine conservation. “I couldn’t possibly write Jaws today,” he wrote in Audubon in 1998, eight years before his death. “We know so much more about sharks—and just as important, about our position as the single most careless, voracious, omnivorous destroyer of life on earth—that the notion of demonizing a fish strikes me as insane.”
The tide is surely turning—perhaps even fast enough to ensure that these ancient creatures remain kings of the ocean for millennia to come.
This story ran in the July-August 2013 print issue with the headline "Safer Waters."