WASHINGTON – In this summer of the shark, the pace of shark harvesting has slowed dramatically along the Atlantic Coast, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the National Marine Fishery Service said this week.
The fishery service had set a harvest limit of 1.5 million pounds of large coastal sharks — including blacktip, sandbar, tiger and hammerhead sharks — between July 1 and Aug. 31. But it was forced to extend the season to Sept. 4 after realizing that fishermen had caught less than half the limit in the first month.
“Generally, they catch the entire quota or go over by the middle of August,” said Karyl Brewster-Geisz, the services’ fishery management specialist. Officials will not know the final total for a few more weeks, but expect that fishermen reached their quota by Sept. 4.
Charles Rizk, a former commercial fisherman in Florida who now runs a seafood business in Laurel, Del., blamed the slower pace of shark landings on recent reductions in the quota, which he said have ruined business for many commercial shark fishermen.
“Nearly every shark fisher I know has gotten out of the industry because they couldn’t make a living out of it,” said Rizk, who sold both of his fishing boats in 1992 and opened Bayside Seafood and Produce in Delaware.
Rizk said that in 1984 the government encouraged fishing of large commercial sharks out of fear that there were too many of them. As that shark population dropped, the government began to tighten restrictions, the most limiting in 1997, when it cut the commercial quota for large coastal sharks in half.
Fishery service officials said Friday they could not say whether the number of shark fishermen has fallen in recent years. But experts defend the limits on fishing, saying that over-harvesting is contributing to the decline in the shark population.
“The best available science has indicated that the large coastal shark population has been severely depleted since the 1980s,” said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla.
Because sharks grow slowly and produce small numbers of young, Hueter said it will take a long time for the numbers of large coastal sharks to rebound.
The fishing limits do not apply to oceanic sharks or small coastal sharks.
Fishermen claim the government’s estimates of large coastal shark populations are too low, and they have filed several suits challenging the limits. Rizk pointed to the number of shark attacks on humans in coastal waters this summer.
“Because of the quotas, there is no one fishing on the shores,” Rizk said. “Now, we have sharks swimming along the beach.”
But scientists said there is no link between a drop in shark fishing and a rise in shark attacks.
“That’s sort of an urban legend that has been put out there,” Hueter said. “The fact is, when you look at the shark attack trends, that the shark attack numbers, by decade, correlate with the amount of people in the water.
“When you look at the numbers, the shark attack rate is lower than in previous years on a per person basis. It is wrong to portray this as a consistently increasing trend,” he said.