Great White Sharks in New England | Feeding Frenzy
On a warm mid-November day I visit Larsen at his store. A steel-gray sky hangs overhead, high winds whip around the island, and save for one fisherman who’s shelling scallops, the marina is still. Larsen, a fast talker with a medium build and busy eyes, doesn’t fish anymore. Stiffer regulations and steeper expenses pushed him out of the business. But for a time in the 1980s he was one of the few guys to hunt sharks exclusively. He’d come to it by default: The large swordfish stocks his father and uncles had known had been almost wiped out. He’d made up for it with shark fins, a controversial delicacy in demand in Asia for shark-fin soup. The practice of finning–it essentially entails cutting off just a small section of the shark and dumping the rest of the fish–was made illegal in U.S. waters in 2000, but for a period Larsen was fetching $20 a pound.
It’s dangerous work. When a bull shark latched onto his cousin’s leg, Larsen had to pry open the fish’s mouth with crowbars. Another time, just seconds after his crew had hauled in a 150-pound mako, the fish started thrashing on the deck, pushing the crew toward the bow before flopping its way down the staircase toward the engine room. “I grabbed it by the tail and just started holding it,” Larsen recalls. “Another guy grabbed a rope and wrapped it around the tail, and we just pulled it back up. It was pure adrenaline that got that shark back on the boat.”
But the story he tells most often is the one he’s advertised the most. Larsen’s main business is fish, but he’s carved out some shelf space for items like T-shirts that say Amity (the island’s name in Jaws) and colorful wooden signs in the shape of a great white. But the stopper is a large faded print of Larsen and his crew with a great white, taken in 1983–and, of course, there are the jaws from that fish.
Larsen was combing the waters for swordfish on his big 52-foot shrimper southeast of Georges Bank. He’d harpooned his first fish when the white showed up, going underwater to take a bite of the catch before coming back up. So it went for three days; nearly the entire catch was ruined. Finally, Larsen went for the shark himself. He circled the area where he’d anchored. Around and around he went for two hours, hoping the white would pop up again. When it did, Larsen went after it.
“I harpooned him, but as soon as I did, he swung right around and swam toward the boat, coming toward it like he was going to attack it,” Larsen says. By his own estimate, the shark ran about 20 feet in length and weighed some 3,000 pounds. “Just before he got to the boat, he went straight down.” The shark was mortally wounded; the fight was over. Larsen’s crew eventually got the great white onto the boat’s deck, where they cut out the jaws and discarded the body.
Thanks to Larsen’s pilot, word of the encounter made it back to the island before the crew did. “The docks were lined with people,” Larsen says, “maybe a thousand of them. They thought we had the shark on the boat.” Larsen’s picture made it into the local paper, and the jaws became the stuff of legend around the marina. Even today, shark tournament entrants come into his shop and ask his advice. “I tell them to take a big old hunk of farmed salmon and put it at the end of the line,” he says.
It’s pushing late morning now, and Larsen has other business to attend to. A French couple struggles with their English to order a few lobsters from the tanks that line the front of his shop. Before I leave, I ask Larsen if I can take a picture of him with his shark jaws. We head outside, where he stands right in front of the shop’s door. “Make sure you get my sign in the photograph,” he says, raising the jaws triumphantly.
For now at least, the great white isn’t the perceived monster it once was. With depleted stocks, it’s now officially endangered, and the public’s reverence for the fish has spiked dramatically in recent decades. Just 50 years after Charles Tilton and his son received a hero’s welcome for their harpooning of that shark off Cuttyhunk, in September 2004 Greg Skomal found himself a target of Cape Cod residents who were concerned about the safety of a 14-foot female great white trapped in a saltwater pond on Naushon Island. “I was getting threats if I didn’t save the shark,” Skomal says.
But does that reverence have its limits? Where will public sentiment fall if what happened in Chatham in September 2009 occurs regularly? And what if the arrival of the whites comes in the middle of the season, not at the end of it? Will fear outweigh wonder?
All pertinent questions, because it’s possible that what happened in Chatham is a harbinger of things to come. Skomal believes that. In fact, he’s of a mind that along with the southern tip of Seal Island in South Africa and certain areas of the California coast, Massachusetts waters, with their ever-expanding population of seals, could become another shark hot spot.
That of course could be a boon to marine biologists like Skomal, who in mid-January received the first packets of info from a pair of great-white tags that popped up less than 50 miles off the Jacksonville, Florida, coast. But it could also be a threat to a jittery tourist industry, so dependent on human dominance of the waters. Recreation and nature may be headed for a collision.
“White sharks have been predominantly offshore, but with their incursion into shallow waters that may be changing,” cautions Skomal. “It could play out similarly to other hotspots. Predictable number of seals, predictable number of white sharks–potential human safety consideration. I can’t tell you how that’s going to play out. We know off the coast of California there are white-shark attacks on human beings. That happens. Not in big numbers. But all it takes is one.”
Then, just maybe, another kind of feeding frenzy might begin. Great white sharks can do that.
For more information on shark species, check out The Shark Handbook by Greg Skomal (Cider Mill Press, 2008) or visit: NewEnglandSharks.com