Thursday, March 06, 2008

Another Giant Florida Hammerhead Shark Killed

Lately (last few years) it seems like a lot of "record" sized hammerhead sharks have been killed by shark fishermen in search of a trophy sized shark. This time it was off Singer Island in Palm Beach County on the Atlantic coast. A 1,000 pound, 13 foot long hammerhead was caught. According to the news article, the fisherman said he didn't mean to kill the shark, it just died during the struggle.

Two years or so ago a 1,280 pound, 14 foot 3 inch hammerhead shark was caught in Boca Grande Pass on the Gulf coast by another record-seeking shark fisherman. It pulled the fisherman's boat 12 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico during the struggle.

Imagine the power and stamina of a shark that size to be able to pull a boat for 12 miles.

Lots of hammerhead sharks feed in Boca Grande Pass, especially from May through July, when one of their favorite food sources, Tarpon, is there. Unfortunately the human Tarpon sport fishermen are also there competing with the hammerheads and other sharks for the Tarpon. Often the sharks will attack a Tarpon that has been hooked by a sports fishermen and eat it before the Tarpon can be pulled into the boat.

I like to fish, and I'm no far-left tree-hugger, but at some point we all have to realize that there are just too many people fishing now to be continuing to kill off the dwindling population of large sharks, just for "sport". What kind of sport is that?

It reminds me of when I'm around other fishermen on the piers, and someone lands a catfish, a ladyfish, a stingray, or some other fish that they don't want. They often just leave it flopping on the hot concrete of the pier until it dies, then they kick the lifeless body back into the water. It's just a "trash fish" they say. Fortunately the people that do this are not as numerous as they used to be, but they are still around.

Below is a photo of a stingray someone left on Fort Desoto's Gulf Pier to die. They could have easily just nudged it into the water. Instead, the tore off the tail spine and left it baking in the sun to die. Some would say that the stingray has no useful purpose, but as it so happens, the stingray is one of the hammerhead shark's favorite foods.

I want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be able to see the graceful beauty of the giant hammerheads. For those who might quote the Bible and say that man has dominion over the earth, I don't challenge that at all. But with that honored place of holding dominion comes the responsibility of stewardship.

Below is a youtube video of a large hammerhead shark in Boca Grande pass eating a tarpon that the fisherman has hooked. If you listen carefully, you'll hear a woman on one of the boats remark how "sad" it is that the tarpon is being attacked. Amazing. The shark is killing to survive. How is that sad? The tarpon might well have died from the struggle with the fisherman anyway, even though it might have been released "unharmed." Many "catch-and-release" fish die anyway, despite the best efforts of the fishermen to return them unharmed to the water. A struggling fish attracts sharks. Upon release, the fish is exhausted and is an easy catch for any sharks that have been attracted by the struggle. I am not against catch-and-release fishing, but I am not comfortable with the deliberate targeting of large sharks, whose population is in decline.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Sharkwater - Film Review


Today was opening day for the documentary film "Sharkwater" by Rob Stewart. I got there for the 3pm matinee to get a jump on the Friday evening movie crowd. I watched it at the Baywalk Muvico theater in downtown St. Petersburg. Overall, the movie was better than I'd expected.

Sharkwater has some of the most beautiful underwater cinematography I've seen in any film, beginning with the beautiful, graceful kelp waving in the current and stretching toward the surface, and continuing with colorful and mesmerizing schools of fish, and plenty of sharks, turtles, and rays. It is a beautiful film to watch.

However, along with the beautiful underwater scenery you will be watching the cruel and wasteful practice of shark finning: catching sharks, cutting off their fins (for soup), and throwing them, often still alive, back into the water to sink to the bottom and die. There is a big Asian market for shark fin soup and it is nearly equivalent to the drug trade in profits. Stewart takes the cameras onto shark finning boats and into hidden shark finning operations in Costa Rica to expose the often illegal, but tolerated practice. Just like in the drug trade, the high profit potential attracts organized crime, official payoffs and bribes, and disregard for regulations, which are already nearly impossible to enforce in international waters.

The focus of the film is on the problem of wholesale shark slaughter and how so little is being done to stop it. Rob Stewart and his crew team up with the Sea Shepherd organization to try to stop Costa Rican shark finners on the high seas, only to be thwarted by the Costa Rican government, which was more interested in protecting profits from the illegal shark fin trade than enforcing the laws. Stewart also makes a trip to Asia, where the shark fins are in such high demand. I have to tell you, it isn't pretty to watch, nor is it easy to listen to some of the ignorant statements made by those defending such gratuitous slaughter.

Rob Stewart clearly has a penchant for adventure and the film has its share of suspenseful moments, especially considering it is a documentary, a fact that we are unable to escape, given the continuing narration by Stewart. Some reviewers have been critical of the fact that Stewart constantly uses the word "I" while narrating, and takes a distracting detour to cover his own misadventure with a dangerous staph infection in his leg.

I'm going to cut Stewart some slack and say that this film is a fabulous and compelling documentary, especially when considering it is Stewart's first. It was filmed and directed by Stewart. Yes, it could have been much more than it was. I thought is was weak on science. For instance, Stewart and others interviewed in the film talk about how sharks are a necessary part of the food chain, and eliminating them will have serious consequences, right down to upsetting the balance of plankton. I would have liked to have heard more specifics on this. (This made me think, could the decline of shark populations be somehow be related to algae and red tide outbreaks in the Gulf of Mexico?) There is so much more to be said about sharks and shark behaviors and how we relate to sharks.

The statistics and pleas to "save the sharks" at times seemed a bit cliche, a situation that was made tolerable by the powerful cinematography; I mean, when you are watching Asian and Costa Rican fishermen hacking the fins off of live sharks, you really don't need the statistics anyway.

Another reviewer remarked that Stewart portrays the ignorant fishermen as "the lowest form of ignorant, poor short-sighted rednecks, always looking for an easier way to make a buck, no matter how destructive." I don't think Stewart really portrayed the fishermen that way at all. He just filmed them doing what they were doing. His criticism wasn't of the fishermen, it was of the industry. The fishermen, by and large are just poor people trying to make a living. As long as there is an industry, there will be fishermen to work it. It is the industry and those who allow it that Stewart portrays as ignorant, greedy, and short-sighted.

Yet another reviewer writes: "the film's merits are compromised by structural and conceptual flaws." Maybe for a professional film critic the merits are compromised, but for me, the film succeeds admirably despite some structural and conceptual flaws.

You know, it's just nice to watch a film done by someone with passion, who doesn't resort to distorting facts, or make slanderous remarks, or create staged circumstances for dramatic effect. It's not a Hollywood production, thank goodness. It's just a good, honest film.

While much of the narrative didn't live up to the cinematography, I was particularly taken by the observation that several people in the film made regarding how future generations of humans will have little respect for prior generations who destroyed what was not theirs to destroy, and will see us as barbarians, much like we now view those who practiced, and still practice in some countries, slavery. And that change doesn't come from governments and institutions, but from small groups and individuals who dare to take action.

To me, the greatest thing that most people can take away from this film is that sharks are not the evil killers they have been portrayed to be. I would add this: the group of humans that far and away suffer the greatest number of shark bites is surfers, yet surfers are the humans least fearful of sharks. Surfers are subject to the same Jaws movies, the same media hype as the rest of us. But surfers let their enthusiasm for the water overcome their fears, and they discover that the sharks are not out there hunting us.

Go see the film. Anyone over 12 should see it.

If you are a diver, a surfer, a fisherman, a beach lover, a sailor, a naturalist, a conservationist, or just someone who wants to be informed, you will enjoy it double.

Be sure to check out the film's website and enjoy the film clips and trailers. It's beautiful.

Sharkwater, the documentary.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Forbes Traveler Annual "Scary Beach" Article

Well it's beach season again. Time for spooky stories in the mainstream media about killer sharks, deadly jellyfish, etc. Why do we like to scare ourselves so much?

Forbes Traveler has come out with a suitably scary article in its online magazine about the top "10 Shark Infested Beaches." At least they do point out that the danger from sharks is much less than the dangers from bees, wasps, snakes, and drowning.

Here is the list, according to the author of the article, Adrian Lurssen:

Kosi Bay, South Africa
Gansbaai, South Africa (east of Capetown)
Brisbane, Australia
Bolinas Beach, California (north of San Francisco in Marin County)
New Smyrna Beach, Florida (shark attack capital of the world)
Umhlanga Rocks, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa
North Shore, Oahu
Recife, Brazil
Kahana, West Maui, Hawaii
West End, Grand Bahama Island

Why are there more shark bites at these beaches than others?

Simple. The main reason is that there are more people in the water at these beaches.
A second reason is that some of the beaches are near waters where there are large
populations of seals which attract large sharks. A surfer paddling a surfboard looks a lot like a seal when viewed from below.

The author of the article notes that West End, Bahama Island made the list even though it has only had 4 unprovoked shark bites since 1749, none fatal. But that's still "more than all others in the Bahamas." Not very scary.

New Smyrna, Florida has lots of small bites from blacktip and spinner sharks, usually to the hands or feet of surfers. Surfers usually find themselves in rough, murky water. Sharks don't see well in murky water, but they feed actively in the surf zone. Sometimes they grab a hand or foot. Usually they let go when they realize it isn't a fish. For more detailed info on shark bites in Florida, download my free ebook on beach safety from

In 2005, Forbes interviewed me for an article on "Death Beaches." I gave a few tips for staying safe at the beach, and surprised the author when I told her that the biggest danger at the beach is drowning. Not sharks. Not jellyfish. Not stingrays.

But really, driving to the beach is the most dangerous act of all.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Shark bites man in Naples, Florida

It's not officially summer beach season yet, but we've already had a shark bite on the southwest Florida coast. Newspaper headlines say an older man staying at the Edgewater Beach Resort in Naples was bitten on the thigh while swimming "about 100 yards" off the beach.

Most people aren't very good at estimating distances, but I'll tell you, 100 yards is a really long way out. And the water was murky.

According to the article, the man felt something bump his leg, but he couldn't see anything because the water was so murky. He swam to shore and noticed a semi-circular bite mark on his thigh. He walked up the beach to get help and was taken to the hospital. One article said he had a serious bite wound, another article said it was a non life-threatening injury.

It was also noted that since 1882 there have only been 8 shark bites recorded in Collier County.

So what's the moral of this story? It's the one you don't see that gets you. Just advice has always been to swim near shore in clear water. Obviously the shark in this case let go as soon as it realized it didn't have a fish in its jaws. Being far out from shore in murky water is just a bit too chancy for me.

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