Shark Teeth Pearly White
The waiting, as it happens, might take a while. Throughout New England’s offshore waters, shark numbers have dropped to historic lows, one part of a pattern now documented throughout the Atlantic. The collapse followed a shift in commercial fishing effort late in the 1970s, when vessels began targeting sharks to meet international demand for fins, the prime ingredient in an expensive Asian soup. The fin market encouraged a practice that attracted conservationists anger: Crews winched aboard sharks, hacked off their fins, and pushed the writhing, mutilated fish back into the sea, where they spiraled for the bottom and a slow death. These days, the United States has banned finning within 200 miles of its Atlantic coast. But other markets keep the shark trade robust.
Shark teeth and jaws sell as curios; spines are ground into a white facial powder; the livers yield oil; the cartilage has been used in cancer research, and the steaks of some species serve as an alternative to swordfish, itself in decline. Not all sharks are sold, however. Millions are killed by vessels harvesting other fish, a side effect known as “by-catch.” Others are dispatched by sportfishermen who reel in sharks for kicks and tournament prizes. Many of these sharks end up in landfills or are dumped offshore.
All of this fishing pressure has had a predictable effect. According to 1995 data from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the abundance of valuable shark species along the East Coast fell by 50 to 75 percent during the 1970s and 1980s. More recent data indicate some species have fallen by 85 percent. Among the imperiled sharks are some of the most impressive, including the shortfin mako, the great white, the porbeagle, the sandbar, the scalloped hammerhead, and the basking shark, a harmless krill-eating behemoth that can exceed 30 feet in length.
The prospects for depleted shark species are not good. Unlike most fish, which engage in spawning orgies that can yield enormous hatches, sharks grow slowly, mature late in life, and bear very few young. “Sharks reproduce more like cows and polar bears and people than they do like other fish,” says Wes Pratt, an NMFS biologist and shark specialist who lives in Narragansett. “What this means is that when a stock is depressed, it takes a long time to replenish. They don’t recover from directed fishery pressure very well.”
The shark decline has become alarming enough that NMFS has begun protecting the remaining sharks. Catch limits were set in 1993, then halved in 1997. Commercial regulations now completely prohibit the killing of five species, including the famed white. Broader restrictions were issued last year but have been held up by a court challenge. But some environmentalists are no longer talking about “depleted stocks” of sharks, they are talking about extinction of species. “Sharks have been top predators for hundreds of millions of years,” says David Wilmot, director of the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, a consortium of environmental groups. “They might have only a few decades left.”
None of this comes as a surprise to Charlie Donilon. With 28 years of shark-hunting experience, the last six with his cage, he has seen the New England shark collapse firsthand. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he regularly encountered makos, sandbar sharks, and thresher sharks, along with the occasional tiger or hammerhead. During one of his most active fishing years, a customer caught a 544-pound mako, one of the largest ever captured by a Rhode Island vessel. Another year, he tagged a 20- foot-long great white. He has a picture of that fish rising from the water to bite the bottom step of the Snappa’s dive ladder. It looks like a dog eyeing a pant cuff, except the cuff is made of bronze.
Such encounters are extremely rare nowadays. When Donilon finds sharks off the Rhode Island coast, they are almost always blue sharks, a strong-tasting species that has just begun to attract fishing pressure. If it weren’t for the surviving blues, he says, he probably wouldn’t have a shark-watching business at all. “Oh man,” Donilon says. “I used to go out 20 miles, and we had variety every day. One out of every three fish was a sandbar shark, and one out of every 20 was a mako. But I’ve seen only one mako in the last three years, and sandbar sharks — I don’t see them at all anymore. Those were good eating fish, so a commercial fishery developed, and it wiped them out.”
A midday sun has warmed the atlantic’s undulating surface, and a breeze is starting to kick up. Donilon’s anxiety is beginning to show. Even though he has stoked his chum slick for hours, the waves are quiet. No fins crease the surface. The rope shows no tugs. “C’mon,” he says, squinting into the water. “C’mon.”
Kirkpatrick and her diving partner, Christine Strout, sit in the bow and soak up the sun. Back astern, diver F. Bruce Gerhard Jr. shares adventure stories with his scuba partner, Theodore Hotz. They have paid $165 each, and Gerhard is holding forth on past exploits: his days as an artillery officer, his dives on shipwrecks, a trip to Antarctica. Donilon listens in but peeks constantly at a dive watch the size of a silver dollar, which he has strapped to his wrist.
The striped bass carcass has hung unmolested too long, so Donilon decides to replace it with a frozen false albacore tuna, a greasier fish with rich, red meat. As he lowers the small tuna over the side, a broad swirl breaks across the surface, 60 feet or so behind the boat.