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Sharks!

September 14, 2010

Female lemon shark

The first time I saw a shark in the wild was on my honeymoon, snorkeling at the Molokini crater near Maui. I’m not sure exactly what kind–possibly a sandbar or  a grey reef shark.  It was a good fifty feet away from me, but still– given that I was prone to nightmares about being shredded by sharks–I was surprised to feel no fear, only wonder.  Later, when I started working with sharks at the Key West Aquarium, my shark nightmares disappeared altogether.

Of course, only a few species of shark are actually dangerous to people. Generally, if you leave a shark alone it will be more than happy to do the same.  More people are killed every year from coconuts falling from trees than shark attacks! Respect the shark–acknowledge its presence, keep your distance, don’t panic or flee, and for pete’s sake don’t try to touch it or pet it–and most of the time you’ll be fine.

On the other hand, certain species of sharks can be quite aggressive. The “man-eaters”–the bull shark, great white, and tiger shark–are also the most important sharks in their ecosystems, playing the role of “apex predator”.

You have probably heard conservationists say that apex predators are important for “keeping everything in balance.” Still, some hunters and fishers argue that large predators compete with them for their game and therefor must be killed!  Here in the Florida Keys, there are wayyyy too many people who will take out a shark just for being a shark.  But when you remove the apex predators from an ecosystem, something unexpected happens…

I recently read a book called Rewilding the World by Caroline Fraser, which explained how killing apex predators can actually create LESS game animals for people.  Apex predators (such as bull sharks) eat smaller predators (such as barracuda) and of course, both the apex predator and the smaller predators eat desirable game fish (like yellowtail snapper)  If you kill all the bull sharks, the barracuda population booms unchecked. Then, the barracuda eat all the yellowtail.  “Biodiversity” really IS important for “keeping everything in balance.”

Plus…..C’MON!  SHARKS ARE JUST COOL! They are big and powerful and graceful and have lotsa teeth! This morning I was privileged to join Capt. Ken Harris and his brother Capt. David Harris of Key West Extreme Adventures Shark Tours! These funny, laid-back guys (one a former champion shark-fishermen and the other former curator of the Key West Aquarium and dolphin trainer) share their knowledge of and affection for sharks by bringing visitors on board their “Tiger Cat”–a vessel designed by Capt. Ken to do no harm to the sea floor of the shallow waters in which they look for the magnificent creatures.

On board the “Tiger Cat,” humans and sharks interact in a way which brings no danger to either: the humans dangle a piece of fish from a rope, and the sharks swim up close to eat it!

No hooks, no harm! the shark stays in the water, the humans stay on the boat.

Marine biologists, conservationists and naturalists argue about whether or not feeding of sharks alters their behavior, causing them to associate humans with food and making them more vulnerable to fishermen or injury from boat propellers, not to mention more dangerous to divers. This is true of dolphins and manatees–which is why is it illegal to feed either in Florida.

However, most of the concerns about shark tourism has concentrated on dive-feeds, where a diver gets in the ocean with the sharks, either in a cage or free-floating depending on the species. Here in Key West, where hundreds of fishermen a day legally “chum” the water to attract every fish in the vicinity, I find it hard to believe that target feeding a few sharks will do much damage.

Besides, responsible eco-tourism of sharks generates interest and incentive for the conservation of the species. And if people don’t start caring about sharks, we may soon see them disappear from our seas. Shark-fin soup, a popular Asian delicacy which involves taking only the fin and throwing away the body, has wreaked havoc upon shark populations.  Commercial fishermen often kill sharks accidentally as “bycatch” while longlining and trawling for other species.  Some are killed by recreational fishers, either for a trophy or just out of fear and ignorance.

Bye-bye, bonito!

As for me, I LOVE seeing live sharks in the open waters!

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