The Jaws Of Government: Are The Feds To Blame For Shark Attacks?

Sean Paige article in National Review Online.

The horrific, near-fatal shark attack on a boy off a Florida beach in July — followed just days ago by a similar mauling in the Bahamas — may be nothing more than blind bad luck, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a statistical improbability.

At least, that’s how we’re expected to view such shocking encounters with nature. No one can be blamed, we’re advised by “experts.” A boy, doing what boys do, simply crossed paths with a shark doing what sharks do. Like themes are sounded whenever we read (as we do with what seems increasing frequency) of bear attacks, mountain lions chasing joggers, “reintroduced” wolf packs raiding ranches, alligators menacing golfers, or coyotes snatching house pets. If humankind is going to encroach upon nature, we’re told, we have to accept the fact that we’re not always going to come out on top in the food chain. It’s just nature’s way.

But more than mere happenstance may lie behind the sudden, shocking return of the shark. In a curious juxtaposition of trends, shark attacks last year reached record levels in the world (79), in the U.S. (49), and in Florida (34 documented cases) — even as scientists and government officials are claiming that the animals are being chased toward extinction by fishermen looking for thrill kills. And shark attacks in the U.S. have increased dramatically since 1993 — which is when the federal government began mandating deep cuts in the number of sharks that could be caught for sport or profit.

Proponents of such regulations are understandably reluctant to recognize the possibility of cause and effect. After all, word of the shark’s imminent demise comes from no less an authority than Jaws author Peter Benchley, who has made his name alternately vilifying and lionizing the Great White. “I couldn’t write ‘Jaws’ today,” the author and “full-time ocean conservationist” recently confessed to a magazine.

We hear it from environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Ocean Conservancy (formerly the Center for Marine Conservation). We see it on the Discovery Channel, the Nature Channel, and Animal Planet. Watch in awe as the “perfect killing machine” devours this roped-to-the-boat leg of lamb! the shark programs seem to say. But don’t hate, or fear, or lash out in anger at the poor, misunderstood shark: As an “apex predator,” it plays a beneficial role in the natural world. The author of “Summer of the Shark,” a recent Time magazine cover story, churned up enough menace and bloodlust to make it jump off the rack — yet still dutifully regurgitated the sharks-as-victims line. “Humans are much more dangerous to sharks, which tend to end up in soup or medicine,” the article reminded readers, before trotting out the usual statistical comparisons between shark attacks, lightning strikes, and Christmas-tree-light electrocutions.

Responding to man’s alleged war on sharks — and the toll it was said to be taking on their dominion in the deep — the federal government in 1993 began managing the U.S. commercial shark fishery. It also launched an aggressive campaign to rebuild allegedly depleted shark stocks, mainly by making life untenable for commercial shark fishermen. This marked a dramatic reversal from a decade earlier, when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), recognizing sharks as an underused resource, was actively encouraging Americans to enter an industry it now seems hell-bent on shutting down.

Since 1993, strict limits have been placed on the number of sharks that can be taken from U.S. waters by both commercial and sport fishers. The commercial shark-fishing season has been shortened accordingly. Four-thousand-pound “trip limits” made it a losing business proposition for the largest U.S. shark boats, ensuring that sharking became a small-boat industry. Commercial shark permits issued by the feds were cut tenfold, from around 2,000 before 1999 to around 200 today. And nearly 20 types of sharks — including Whites, some types of Makos, and Caribbean Reef sharks — have been declared off-limits to commercial harvest.

Also jumping on the shark-protection bandwagon, Florida in 1992 instituted a strict, 1 shark per person (or 2 shark per boat, maximum) bag limit on sharks in state waters (which extend 3 miles from the beach on the Atlantic Ocean, and nine miles from the shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico). Gillnetting and long lining, two common techniques for snaring sharks, were also banned. Though sharks are still caught in state waters, these restrictions severely reduce the number taken closest to shore. This has effectively created a sanctuary in the area where human-animal interactions are most prone to occur, and which at least one type of shark famous for its attacks upon humans — the Bull Shark — is known to frequent.

All of these tactics have resulted in a steep drop in the number of sharks caught in U.S. coastal waters: from 17.2 million lbs. in 1989, at the apogee of the shark fishing boom (spurred on, in large part, by the high prices paid for shark fin soup), to 8.5 million lbs. in 1999 — or a 49 percent cut. Translating those weights into actual numbers, one government report indicates that shark kills fell from an estimated 350,000 fish (in 1989) to 113,100 fish (in 1999). Comparable reductions have occurred in recreational shark fishing.

In Florida, where the vast majority of shark fishing (and U.S. shark attacks) occurs, more than 7.4 million lbs. of shark was hooked or netted off the coast in 1990, according to U.S. fishery statistics. By 1999, due to government regulation, the total catch had plummeted by more than 86 percent, to just over 1 million lbs. In recent years, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has pushed for even deeper cuts, but has been blocked in court by what remains of the commercial shark fishing industry. Sharkers question the validity of the science behind the regulations, contending that a government economic impact assessment grossly underestimated their financial hit on the industry. The government’s most recent shark-stock assessment — the product of a controversial 1998 workshop which some fishers say was hijacked by advocacy groups — is currently undergoing an independent scientific review, as part of a court-ordered settlement between fishing interests and the government. According to fishing people, the review shows the government’s shark-population estimates to be based on insufficient data and flawed modeling. According to proponents of shark rebuilding, the industry is engaged in a stalling tactic, and must be curbed for its own long-term good.

Though ichthyophiles understandably deny a correlation, the number of shark attacks in U.S. and Floridian waters has risen steadily as shark-catch totals have fallen. In 1993, when the federal government began managing the fishery, there were 8 documented shark attacks in Florida, according to the International Shark Attack File (whose counts are considered credible, but err on the conservative side). Last year, there were a record-high 34 — including one known fatality — in state waters, representing a more than threefold (325 percent) jump in cases. Nationally, attacks rose from 21 in 1993 to 51 last year.

In the four years immediately preceding federal intervention, Florida averaged 10.7 documented shark attacks per year; the national average was 17. In the seven full years following institution of the shark-stock rebuilding program, Florida has averaged 25 shark attacks per year (a 150 percent increase since the early `90s) — the nation, 35.3.

Meanwhile, word among fishermen working the waters off Florida this summer is that there is no shortage of sharks; in fact, despite government claims of scarcity, they seem to be in surplus. Some shrimp boats are reporting mounting problems with sharks tearing up nets. One fisheries management official in the Florida Keys says sharks are especially prevalent this summer. And an unusually high number of Makos have been reported in the Dry Tortugas, desert islands about 60 miles west of Key West. Several shark fishermen interviewed indicated that sharks are plentiful: They’re having no trouble catching their 4,000 lb. “trip limit” in a single night, rather than the usual two or three.

Do statistics and anecdotes indicate that federal policy may be leading to an increase in attacks? “Absolutely,” says Bob Spaeth, a fish house owner from Madeira Beach, Florida, and spokesman for Southeastern Fisheries Association, Inc., an industry group. “In fact, we in the industry years ago predicted this was going to happen.”

Other factors could be contributing to the phenomenon, however. These include increased human activities on the water, weather patterns and ocean currents, and shark migratory and mating activities only vaguely understood by scientists. Some experts say over-fishing elsewhere in the oceans may drive sharks closer to shore. Others blame the phenomenon on shark-feeding scuba divers, and are pushing to ban these popular excursions.

All of the alternative explanations have adherents in government and in the academy — many of them “scientists” for whom the decline of sharks, and the need to rebuild their numbers, seems to have become unshakable dogma. George Burgess (perhaps the most widely quoted of the shark apologists, and a key player in instituting federal shark fishing regulations) believes the record number of attacks is directly attributable to increases in population and human water sports activities. But the increase in Florida shark attacks has far outpaced the state’s 23.5 percent growth rate in the 1990s. And besides, not everyone who moves to Florida goes for the beaches and water sports.

Burgess is a leading critic of shark-feeding dives, arguing that they may somehow be altering the shark’s “basic behavior and respect for human beings.” But divers account for less than 20 percent of shark attack victims — a proportion that has held steady for the last thirty years. Increases have come largely at the expense of swimmers and surfers closer to shore. And in the grand scheme of things, the number of sharks likely to participate in such feedings is infinitesimally small.

We spoke soon after 8-year-old Jesse Arbogast was attacked by a 7-ft. Bull shark near Pensacola, Fla. Burgess was working the media hard, to try and damp down what he derisively called a “shark scare.” Within days, however, two more people in Florida were bitten, one of them a surfer just miles from the site of the Arbogast incident.

Another vocal supporter of the government’s shark program is Dr. Merry Camhi of the National Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program. Camhi served as observer at the 1998 workshop at which the most recent stock assessment was done. “I’m not out on the water and I’m not collecting the data to say myself, but based on the projected numbers from the [1998] workshop, and based on the fact that we’re still fishing under the same quotas as we were in 1997, my guess is that the shark stocks are not recovering,” says Camhi. “You’re never going to get perfect information” on shark-stock sizes, according to Camhi, “but you must err on the side of precaution, and err on the side of recovery.”

When asked whether state regulation might have something to do with increases in attacks, Lee Shlessinger, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, was adamant in his denials. “We’re in the business of rebuilding the shark population, our job is the protection of these animals,” declared Shlessinger, obviously appalled by the suggestion. “Sharks are over-fished. We are killing too many sharks.”

What can or should be done for the protection of people if “rebuilding” current shark stocks leads to a future increase in attacks? “We have no evidence that our management of sharks has anything to do with this,” Shlessinger said of the recent attacks. “But if our commission sees this as a problem, we’ll just have to deal with it then. Right now, we’re looking at it in terms of the shark.”

At least one government scientist interviewed does question the premise and goals of federal shark-stock rebuilding efforts, however, and knows first-hand how politicized they’ve become. But he spoke on condition of anonymity, as his views have not been well received within NMFS. Shark stocks probably are lower now than before the 1980s shark fishing boom, this expert says. There is little question that shark-fishing abuses, including “finning” (in which the fin is removed and the rest of the fish discarded), were at one time prevalent, “but shark abundance is far, far less dire than shark advocates contend.”

Many of those embroiled in the debate are less than objective observers, according to this insider. “Many absurd statements have been made [about sharks], but [the scientists] are being paid to advocate particular positions and to make inflammatory remarks.”

So how did the once-reviled shark become a cause celebre? “There was a little niche in academia who were looking for some kind of horse to ride, so they got onto this issue and worked it until they elevated it in the public eye,” the scientist explains. From there, eco-politics, rather than sound science, took over. “The [National Marine Fisheries Service] had a political problem on its hands, so it took steps to try to limit escalation as much as it could.”

To placate potential critics, the government’s internal working groups long had included representatives from outside advocacy organizations, says the insider. “But over the years, those outside groups have exercised increasing influence over the scientific process and policy outcomes.” NMFS “is not a scientific organization, but a political organization,” he says. “It might look like a science organization to the public because it has scientists on staff. But it’s not, because its administration serves at the mercy of politicians.”

When this person began voicing doubts about the science behind shark-stock assessments and regulations, he says he was “frozen out” of the process. “I was not controllable, so they keep me out of it,” he says. He adds that fisheries decisions formerly made at the laboratory level, in accord with the best available science, are now made in Washington.

“I feel that hard evidence is lacking that Atlantic sharks are in any serious trouble, much less going extinct,” says the scientist. Any lack of abundance occurring along the U.S. Atlantic coast isn’t necessarily bad, he adds, “because sharks are assuredly dangerous, particularly in coastal areas where people frequently enjoy water sports, as recent increases in shark attacks demonstrate.”

One staunch proponent of shark decline who nonetheless seems willing to consider a link with increasing attacks is Dr. Ellen Pikitch, director of marine conservation programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Though she stands behind the 1998 assessment that shark stocks remain in deficit, and calls the chance that they could be in surplus “minuscule,” Pikitch at least seemed intrigued with the data we presented. “I think people should probably take a closer look at shark species most responsible for attacks,” Pikitch said. “It could be that with certain species they could be rebounding near shore. It’s certainly something people should look at.”

And what of the likelihood that federal shark-stock rebuilding efforts will lead to a further increase in shark encounters? “I think shark attacks are unpleasant and not something we want to see increasing, but the first step is to understand what is happening,” she said. “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but we shouldn’t behave like ostriches either.”

A more proactive approach to the shark question is suggested by fish house owner Bob Spaeth, who urges wider national adoption of what he calls the shark fisher’s unofficial motto. And that is?

“Eat the shark before the shark eats you,” chuckles Spaeth.

Copyright © 2001 National Review Online