December 07, 2010
On Threats to an Apex Predator
By Hal Herring
It was the winter of 1984, and we were running long lines for grouper and tilefish in the Gulf. 18 miles of gear, a hook every thirty feet or so, anchors clipped every so often to take the alewife baits to the bottom in maybe 600 feet of water.
Run nine miles, cut the line, attach a buoy, start baiting the leaders on the big cart for the other nine miles of line on the spool. Pulling gear, mid-afternoon on day three or four, the kill boxes half full of grouper, the spool began to slowly reverse. We knew the signs of truly big fish – the groaning of the gear, the singing of the monofilament under tension, the great bubbles of air exploding on the surface when a warsaw grouper was being hauled up from the pitch black world of canyons and cliffs and reefs that yawned below the thin skin of our hull.
But this was something very different. I remember the first mate, a good friend and a top hand, grabbing the flying gaff and telling me to hold on to the rope that was tied to the huge head of the gaff. A warning bell went off in my head, and I hitched the rope around a cleat on the gunwale instead. The fish, worn down by the miles of line and weights and fish hanging below it, and by the tension of the spool above it, eventually began coming up.
A black and silver missile appeared below us, head down, a wild whip of a tail, longer than its body, undulating in the electric blue water. “Thresher shark!” somebody said. I had seen smaller ones, never realized they attained such monstrous size. The long, impossibly graceful tail broke the surface, and my buddy the first mate struck the fish with the flying gaff, somewhere in the gills. All hell broke loose. The thresher exploded from the water, and then tried to sound. The rope I was supposed to be holding tore the cleat cleanly from the fiberglass of the gunwale, as the boat rocked mightily. But the mainline held, and the spool began unwinding again, though the huge fish was swimming only a foot or so under the water. Our captain, a man only a couple years older than we were, emerged from the wheelhouse holding the boat’s .223 Ruger Ranch rifle, and cursing, pumped a half dozen rounds, fast, into the shark’s head. I’ll never forget the deep thudding sound of the bullets striking, or the explosion of blood into the water around the fish.
In the end, after a herculean butchering job, conducted with the fish in the water and us leaning over the gunwales because we had no way to hoist such a monster into the forty foot boat, we hauled a couple hundred pounds of meat aboard and packed it away into the ice holds. I cannot remember exactly what it was worth then- maybe $2.50 a pound, maybe a bit more. We cut the jaws from the fish’s head and brought them in, but a thresher’s mouth is small in proportion to its head, and they dried in a funny hour-glass shape and were unimpressive.
It’s tail was the main thing that impressed the folks back on the dock in Destin, a few days later. We took photos of it- lost now- and eventually tossed it overboard in the harbor, where I remember you could see it clearly, turning pale and ghostly on the mucky bottom, attended by crabs and minnows. It finally disappeared.
I’ve seen a lot of sharks in my time. Swam with nurse sharks off Key West. Caught and sold black tips for beer money. Seen a mako, fourteen feet long once, eating swordfish off our lines. Cussed dogfish while surf fishing for reds and croakers, then watched my six year old nephew catch one and saw his face light up like a Christmas tree, “shark! I caught a shark!” We were radioed for fuel once by a couple of old boys on a boat with a bad reputation. We were headed in from a seven day trip, loaded down with fish and in the best of moods. We gave them what fuel we could spare, pulling alongside, and heaving over a hose. There was no wind that day and the dead fish smell off of their boat was astounding. Lines strung from their wheelhouse were festooned with reeking black shark fins, glistening with oil in the heat. It was the first we’d ever seen of the shark fin trade.
The fin trade is much to blame, they say (it’s always nice to blame whatever it is on voracious and overpopulated Asians, or at least, somebody else) but so are all the other ways we’ve treated sharks, and the way we’ve treated the ocean in general. The pesky scientists say that sharks have remained basically unchanged for almost 100 million years. According to Wikipedia, human beings have been around maybe 5 million years or so. I find it fascinating that the one species that considers itself the most evolved is so very young, and so very destructive. Why would a species that is assumed to be the most intelligent act in ways that seem so contrary to its own long term interests? So heedless, careless, infantile? What is a successful species, really? Surely I am not alone in wondering about these things?
More to the point, what will we tell our grandchildren when they ask us what happened to the mighty and fearsome sharks?