Sharks Are Only Doing What Sharks Do

Paige Op-Ed In The Calgary Herald<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />



News stories and commentary concerning this “Summer of the Shark” contain plenty of speculation and far-flung theories as to what may be behind it, yet overlook the most plausible explanation for what is occurring.It could be that shark populations are up because the state of Florida and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service have been working aggressively since the early 1990s to increase shark populations–mainly by regulating the American commercial shark industry into near extinction.The number of shark-human interactions off U.S. beaches began climbing steeply in the mid-1990s, after the federal government and the state of Florida began mandating deep reductions in the catches of commercial and recreational shark fishers as part of a program to increase the number of sharks off the Atlantic coast.These actions were predicated on the questionable premise, pushed by a number of advocacy groups, that sharks in the Atlantic were headed toward decline and extinction. Florida began regulating commercial and recreational shark fishing in 1992, sharply reducing the number of sharks that could be caught in state waters and outlawing two fishing techniques, gill-netting and long-lining, that were frequently used to catch sharks.These actions in combination have created de facto shark sanctuaries in Florida state waters, stretching 4.8 kilometres into the Atlantic Ocean and 15 kilometres into the Gulf of Mexico, in an area where the risk of human-shark encounters is greatest and one shark renowned for its attacks on humans, the bull, is known to frequent.Florida's 1995 gill net ban also effectively ended mullet fishing in state waters, leading to a likely explosion in bait fish that could be luring sharks closer to shore.Since 1993, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service has ordered sharp cuts in the number of sharks that can be caught by fishers off the Atlantic coast, instituted 1,800-kilogram “trip limits” that drove larger boats out of the fishery, reduced commercial shark fishing permits from 2,000 before 1999 to around 200 today, and placed nearly 20 types of sharks off limits to fishermen.As a result, the commercial shark catch in U.S. waters has been cut in half since the late 1980s, and Florida's catch fell by 86 per cent between 1989 and 1999, leaving hundreds of thousands more sharks in the water each year.As shark catch totals have fallen, shark attack numbers have risen, from an average of 11 a year in Florida in the four years immediately preceding federal action to an average of 25 a year since — culminating in last year's record number of 34 and a near-record pace this year.Shark attack figures across the U.S. have also risen since 1993, from an average of 17 a year in the four years preceding launch of the federal shark stock rebuilding effort to an average of 35 a year since.Shark advocates such as George Burgess, a leading proponent of the people-are-the-problem theory of shark attacks, attempt to tie the rising number of cases to growth in human population and recreation, but provide scant statistical data to support that contention.In fact, the increase in the number of attacks in Florida since 1993 has far outpaced the state's 23.5 per cent growth rate in the 1990s, and shark attack numbers have not risen (and on average have remained flat or fallen) in California and Hawaii, though those states, too, have undergone considerable growth in the last decade.Why is the second point important? Because the greatest increase in attacks has occurred along the Atlantic coast, and especially in Florida, where state and federal shark regulations have been most aggressively applied.The National Marine Fisheries Service's shark population “rebuilding” program is specifically aimed at Atlantic shark stocks.These facts raise a cause-and-effect possibility that proponents of these regulations are understandably reluctant to acknowledge or examine.There really is no mystery to this “Summer of the Shark” when one considers the most plausible explanation.Shark numbers are up because shark advocates and government regulators have been working hard to push them up, with a disregard for the public safety implications.Sean Paige is with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy group in Washington, D.C.


Copyright © 2001 The Calgary Herald