Shark Attack : Our appetite for the undersea predator is leading to its destruction.


I got even. I ate shark at Gladstone's.

--Gladstone's 4 Fish button and T-shirt slogan from 1975, the year "Jaws" was released.

Californians discovered the joyful irony of eating shark in the 1970s. That's when government-financed promotional programs were launched and caught the public's fancy with some reverse psychology: Bite into a shark for a change.

The fish, with its firm, meat-like texture, was touted as perfect for the barbecue grill and versatile enough for other, more ambitious preparations. Federally funded brochures at the time wrote eloquently of shark sauteed with soy sauce and ginger, microwaved with garlic butter, or baked with a Parmesan-herb coating. Shark, particularly the thresher shark, was sold as a fish that even seafood-haters could enjoy.

Even more enticing, this sturdy--yet delicate-tasting--fish was a bargain, often selling for less than $2 a pound. The Pacific Coast fishing fleet was so enthusiastic about shark's market potential that it invented a special net--the drift gillnet--to catch sharks. The fleet's initial target was the thresher shark but several other species were soon fished commercially as well. By 1979 more than 11,000,000 pounds of shark were caught in West Coast waters, up from 862,090 pounds just three years earlier.

The introduction of shark meat to grocery-store fish counters can be counted among the seafood industry's greatest successes. But this success came at a price.

As shark became easier to find in the supermarket, it became harder to find in the wild. Due to what a recent federal report calls "intense exploitation," the number of sharks swimming in waters off the West Coast has declined dramatically.

Other heavily fished species may replenish their numbers over time, but the shark is slow to mature and has a notoriously low reproductive rate. Sharks cannot reproduce until they are about 10 years old and even then the animal produces only two or four "pups" a year.

"Commercial or sport fishery targeted on sharks has been the problem," says Dennis Bedford, a marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game in Long Beach. "The animal is only capable of replacing itself slowly--(commercial shark fishing) was almost like mining them out like coal."

A research report by David B. Holts of the National Marine Fisheries Service, published in 1988, states: "Population declines for many of these (shark) stocks could continue for some time even if the fishing effort were removed immediately."

The irony is that the species that most frequently attacks humans--the great white shark--is not fished commercially. Those that are sold as food, such as the thresher, swim in deep waters, far out at sea and away from recreational beach areas.

"We are doing sharks a lot more damage than they have ever done to us by a long way," says Steven Webster, education director for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Few marine biologists will speculate for the record on the characteristics of a sea without its leading ocean predator, but some say that without sharks, other fish species will expand to dangerously large levels setting off a chain reaction that could destroy food sources for much ocean life.

Many consider this threat to the ocean's ecosystem an example of how the interests of food production and the environment frequently clash. The potential loss of several shark species because of commercial and sport fishing is an issue similar to those of pesticide usage, destruction of forests for cattle grazing and manipulation of plant and animal genetics.

Still, there is little sympathy for the shark.

The horrific image of a man-eating terror machine has been burned into the public consciousness by folk tales, films, news accounts and literature. This ingrained paranoia may have allowed the seafood industry to overfish a valuable food source to the point of oblivion--without public outcry.

"Fishes, particularly those with teeth that bite people, do not stir (sympathetic) emotions," says Webster of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "And fish are not high on the list of most conservation groups unless it's a snail darter or pup fish, which are ready for extinction."

Snail darters and pup fish have powerful interest groups looking out for their precarious status. No such organized group has surfaced to argue the case for sharks.

"Yes, there are shark populations that have been fished down with abusive commercial fishing practices," says Tim Athens, a Channel Islands Beach fisherman. "The general population of California just doesn't know about (the issue)."

One of the reasons the shark case has been overlooked is that the seafood industry, fractured into thousands of different components, operates in relative anonymity. In fact, sharks were under siege long before anyone noticed.

Consider the story of the thresher shark. It's a shark that is found in most of the world's oceans, but was once particularly abundant off California's coast. In 1976, only 46,887 pounds of thresher shark were landed by commercial fisherman on the West Coast. But as the eat-shark campaign heated up, the thresher catch increased an astonishing 50-fold, to 2.3 million pounds at its peak in 1982. The numbers declined as thresher became scarcer. By 1989, only 655,078 pounds were landed in West Coast ports, a drop of 84% from 1982 levels. Seafood processors now must go far afield to South America to purchase the fish.

Retail prices have skyrocketed correspondingly. From less than $2 a pound 14 years ago, thresher shark now sells for as much as $7 or $8 a pound, a level that places it in the same company as swordfish, halibut and salmon.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service report, "From available evidence it is clear that the local thresher shark population is not large and the immigration (of the species) from adjacent waters is not sufficient to sustain the current fishing pressure."

Other industry observers say the species won't recover to pre-1970s levels for decades or longer. As one California Fish and Game official recently said, "There isn't much left of the thresher shark."

"The thresher is not wiped out because there are still some sharks out there," marine biologist Bedford says. "But developing a sustainable fishery for sport or commercial interests is not in the cards. Thresher shark is gone as a commercial (food) species in California."

Similar cycles of overfishing have occurred with other shark species, including the Pacific angel, mako, blue and leopard. As one species disappeared, the fleet would go after another.

"There is always that tendency to wipe out one species and then on to the next, particularly with the consumer market demand of Southern California," says Bedford. "If something new comes along then everyone rushes into it, buys a new boat, and then when the species is overfished they are all looking around to go onto something else. . . . Things will look good for three years and then there's usually a collapse."

The cycle began in the late 1970s when federal officials embarked on a plan to encourage consumption of obscure but abundant fish species classified as "underutilized." This category included several varieties--shark, hake, mackerel--that where easy to catch and process but difficult to sell when all the public wanted was salmon, cod, tuna or shrimp.

The campaign had the strong support of the Carter Administration. A top White House official, Anne Wexler, in a May, 1979, speech outlined the overall plan.

"The development of new and underutilized species of fish, together with effective management and perpetuation of those resources, will have lasting benefits to our nation," she said. "It will produce much-needed food and industrial products. It will provide more jobs and hope to coastal communities. It will help reduce our massive trade deficit. . . . Targeting these non-traditional species for development promises to create at least 50,000 new U.S. jobs and $2 billion in new national wealth."

The idea was sound, for the most part, in that it would increase the country's consumption of seafood (most of which is low in fat), support a perpetually struggling domestic fishing industry and offer a lower-cost protein alternative to then-record-high-priced beef.

The West Coast Fisheries Development Foundation in Portland was one of the government-funded agencies that worked on popularizing underutilized species. The foundation, now defunct, encouraged shark eating in its promotional literature: "(The) firm texture, white flesh and mild taste of shark meat have made it a favorite in several countries. . . . As consumers continue to discover shark as a delicious, low-calorie source of protein (then) demand will increase."

The media responded. A 1978 story in The Times, for instance, stated, "Supplies are unquestionably abundant in seas where shark has been allowed to exist unexploited."

When the government began promoting shark consumption, Tim Athens of Channel Islands Beach was 23 and already a five-year veteran of California's commercial fishing fleet.

"More than 10 years ago the federal and state fisheries management people all of sudden said that shark was an underutilized species and told us to go out (to sea) and kill thresher," Athens remembers. "They wanted the thresher market developed and they wanted that fish to be harvested. What's happened with the thresher in California since is a good lesson for everyone. It's the perfect example of the boom-and-bust theory of fishing."

Athens never fished for the thresher shark in his career because he disliked using the drift gillnets. "I was making a good living on catching rockfish with hook and line," he says. "Gillnetting just wasn't fishing to me."

Today, he is still a full time fisherman catching mako sharks from May until December and then Pacific rockfish (red snapper) spring and summer. But he is also a proponent of a more environmentally sound method of shark fishing called the driftline. The process uses stainless steel cables as long as four miles, with hooks every 50 feet baited with whole mackerel or sardines.

"It's a very selective method," Athens says. "It precludes charges that we are catching untargeted species and there are never any marine mammals (such as dolphin) accidentally snared."

Athens' Shark Driftline Assn., despite the care taken to catch only adult mako sharks, is the only shark fishing operation that must work with a catch quota--a rather minuscule 175,000 pounds a year--established by the state of California.

The federal government has drafted a shark fishery management plan that would apply to commercial species in the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The program, scheduled to go into effect on October 1, will establish quotas for the total shark catch and also set size limits so that only adult fish are caught.

Strangely, no such plan is in the works for the Pacific Coast, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. One reason: Federal officials believed that California's state government was able to sufficiently protect sharks.

"Shark was always considered a state-managed species in California and that may have been a questionable call," says Jim Glock, staff officer with the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Portland. "Federal management (of shark resources) on top of California's was not considered desirable or cost-effective."

"The reason nothing was done," says Bedford of the Fish and Game Department, "is pure ignorance on our part. We gave a lot of lip service, but we bear a lot of responsibility for this. We fell into the same traps as other people in that we did not recognize the severe limitations of a fishery like shark and we did not take aggressive enough action to prevent overfishing."

Official seafood industry response to the overall shark issue is tepid. David Ptak, president of the California Fisheries & Seafood Institute and a San Diego-based seafood processor, acknowledges that the disappearance of thresher shark is not the result of a "contamination threat or a loss of habitat."

"The demand for shark is extremely high today and we have a difficult time meeting it," Ptak says. "The industry has had to import the fish from other world markets.

"And our industry is concerned. We support legislation to lessen the impact of fishing on the shark species in the west. Here in California, at least, we are doing our utmost that overfishing does not take place."

Ptak says the California Fisheries & Seafood Institute is trying to limit the season for thresher shark fishing from the current six months to three months.

In fact, Ptak admits the proposal is already the de facto standard. Sharks are migratory fish and so are only in the region for about three months, if that. "They just are not here for half of the (present six-month) season," Ptak says.

The pressure on fishery resources, such as sharks, are not likely to lessen. The National Fisheries Institute, an Alexandria, Va.,-based trade group, is calling on Americans to increase their consumption of seafood to 20 pounds per capita by the year 2000 up from the current level of about 16 pounds.

To achieve this goal, the institute estimates that an additional 1.4 billion pounds of seafood from all sources will be needed up from the current 3.9 billion pounds being sold in the United States. The new product will comes from the wild and from fish farms, according to the group. Naturally, the Pacific Ocean is considered an area ripe for fishery expansion.

Yet, in a recent report, the institute stated, "In the wild fisheries, we feel most of the stocks will remain steady or decline."

And no method has yet been devised to farm sharks.

The Decline of West Coast Sharks

Fishing levels were low until 1976 when a nationwide marketing promotion made shark suddenly chic to eat. But the increased demand led to overfishing. Sharks, unlike most fish, are slow to mature--they cannot reproduce until they are about 10 years old. Charts track fishing levels of just four of more than 20 West Coast shark species.

Source: National Marine Fisheries Service

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