Mad for Shark Fins

Mad for Shark Fins
Mad for Shark Fins

KEY WEST, Fla. — To the uninitiated, the first question that occurs when speed-bouncing across the Atlantic breakers at 50 mph on the way out to deep water, where a boat captain named Carter Andrews flenses the gore off a fish in order to cast for sharks, is: Why in the name of Deep Blue Sea are we fishing for dang sharks?

The second question that occurs, after several minutes yawing and tossing on a camera boat is, "If I have to stomach-chum this water, will that help them?"

To which the camera-boat guide replies, "Can't hurt."

Turns out the competitors don't need a puke-slick. A few feet away, Andrews and his partner sling fish parts overboard, chumming the ocean as a hog farmer slops swine.

As one of eight teams competing in the second Madfin Shark Series, a made-for-TV shark hunt, they're awarded points based on the quantities and varieties of sharks they catch. They must measure each beast against the hash marks on their hull, then release the beast. If they manage to remove the hook from the shark's mouth before the release, their points double.

Their strategy is to fish deep for the rarer species — a mako, hammerhead, or tiger — rather than sight-fish for more common sharks — lemons, blacktips and bulls, e.g. — on the flats around the lower keys.

Sure enough, they hook up. With their boat see-sawing on the waves, they feel the telltale give-and-pull of a shark below. Boat pitching, rod bowing, men straining, they finally work the fish to the surface …

"Nurse shark," Andrews gripes into the radio.

"That's something to be proud of," is the tournament organizer's sarcastic reply.

A dopey, gentle bottom-feeder, the nurse is a penalty of 300 points. Getting the hook out of the beast's mouth only brings Crooked Island back to 0, and in search of bigger game with only time lost.

Kill and be killed

Here we must leave the tournament except to quote an ichthyologist on the matter:

"First and foremost, I want to applaud [Outdoor Channel] for a no-kill tournament," says George Burgess, who directs the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, when reached for a phone interview in (you guessed it) Florida. "The kill tournaments are bad for business in all sorts of ways. It's not just gruesome, it's just plain killing animals that don't need to be killed."

In the 30-odd years that Burgess has been studying sharks, he's seen the rise and fall of kill tournaments along with the populations of the sharks killed. Tournaments existed before Steven Spielberg's seminal summer blockbuster, but with the 1975 release of Jaws, Burgess notes, "there was a mad testosterone rush that went up and down the east coast of the U.S."

From Long Island to the Carolinas, tournament anglers would catch the beasts, drag them to the boat and show this so-called apex predator who was the boss.

"It's damn near criminal in my mind," says Key West guide and Madfin competitor Ken Harris, "that after such a great fight, the shark's reward is a flying gaffe to the gills and a knife to the brain. I hate it. It's wrong."

By the mid-80s, a couple of things had happened. A rising economy in Asia, where shark fins are a delicacy, drove up shark prices worldwide, so many American commercial fishermen hurt by the soft swordfish market turned to hunting sharks.

Unrestrained sport fishing crippled populations further. Burgess recalls an annual tournament outside of Jacksonville where anglers would bribe surfers to set their baits in the surf at night so they could stand on the beach and pluck off dusky sharks with ease.

"Where else could you land 600 pounds of fish off a Boston Whaler, or with a surf rod?" the ichthyologist says.

All big, beer-swilling fun — until the sharks' two- or three-year reproductive cycle keeps the population from replenishing.

By the time that particular tournament folded, like many others before and since, competitors were bagging and measuring 3-foot Atlantic sharpnose sharks, which used to be considered bait for bigger fish. The once-prized duskies, down to 10 percent of their pre-fishing craze population, now are so rare that the law forbids removing them from the water.

"Most of the shark fishing is not for the purpose of putting meat on the table," Burgess says. "It's for displaying the jaws on your mantle and the photograph on your wall. The reality is, catch-and-release should be the way all shark fishing tournaments are done right now."

'They eat and they eat'

Perversely, man has been slaughtering sharks for many of the same qualities that have made sharks so durable for millions of years.

They don't have skeletons, for starters. They're built around cartilage, allowing them utmost flexibility and, thus, maneuverability. Their threshold for pain borders on the masochistic, even by the standards of something that eats stingrays for a living. Sharks' skin is coated in scales (called denticles) so rugged that they use it as body armor.

Their hearing, smell and even sight all are outstanding. As if those weren't enough, sharks can sense the electromagnetic activity of other animals in the water. It allows them to snatch a buried eel or flounder out of the ocean floor, and it's why, according to Burgess, they love to attack motors.

"They've got one thing overlapping the next one," he says. "That's all the sharks do, spend their life going from meal to meal with the occasional foray into lovemaking. They eat and they eat and they eat."

Meals include: fish, eels, lobsters, stingrays, other sharks.

"I've seen a lot of different things," says Robert Moore, a Port Charlotte, Fla., guide and Madfin competitor. "Any time a tarpon's hooked up, (sharks) get very, very aggressive. A shark will destroy a lower unit on a boat."

And an angler doesn't even need to have a fish on to attract a shark's attention. Moore recalls another instance when a boat thumped a shark pursuing a tarpon. The shark turned and attacked the boat, mangling the prop and the lower unit.

In February, reports came from the west coast of Florida describing a four-day frenzy during which a 14-foot bull shark broke off the boat's tail shaft. Water rushed on; the crew radioed for help and was evacuated; the vessel ultimately sank.

Sharks 1, boatingkind 0.

Sharking 'slow and sexy'

So how does a determined angler go about catching, wrestling, measuring and releasing such a beast? Some put a chunk of fish on the hook and cast using light line on a spinning rod or conventional reel.

Steve Rodger prefers a 65-pound braid with a 15-foot leader run around 200-pound monofilament — "big enough not to cut into your hand," he says. The hook needs to be good and sharp, with the point exposed.

As for landing it, Rodger eschews the "tailer," a noose on a pole that some anglers use to snare the rear of the fish to bring it alongside the boat for measurement.

"I'm a big fan of slow and sexy," he says. "Slow and easy, roll them over. You put that tailer on there, it's like grabbing a cat by the tail."

Harris prefers to chum the water purple and throw a fly. "They don't know the fly isn't what they're smelling," he says.

As for removing the hook, the tournament competitors try to make quick work of it, usually with a set of pliers.

"I'm not recommending to people to take the hook out of the fish like we do," Harris says. "Snip the line as close as you feel comfortable. The fish has no backbone. I see people handling them and I say, 'Dude, you've got no idea.' The smaller fish really whip around."

A shark with a hook in its mouth is surely frustrated, but will likely get over it on the way to its next meal of stingray or swordfish. Sharks have been landed with broken swordfish bill jutting out of one eye.

Think back to "The Old Man and the Sea"; sharks love them some billfish. One recipe for shark baiting is to put a swordfish head in a plastic bag, hang it in the sun for a day, then drag it behind a boat to perfume the water with the decaying swordfish's oils.

Simpler formulas also suffice.

"The trick is," Rodger says, "when that fish charges the boat for the first time, you need to give him something, so he relates your boat with food. The first time he comes to the boat, he's the most aggressive."

If a shark, the smell of fresh gore in his nostrils, charges the boat and finds nothing to devour, Rodger says, the animal may reassess the situation and become more wary. The angler's advantage in that situation is the shark's first reaction: a primal drive to consume.

"It's in their DNA," the guide concludes. "It's imprinted in there. It's what their life is, to clean up the dead and dying. They're coming no matter what."

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