The Washington Post

Shark conservation in Florida likely to pass, despite rise in shark-related accidents

Researcher tags a hammerhead shark off the Florida Keys. (Christine Shepard)

Worldwide attention focused on shark deaths after an American man died off the coast of west Australia this week, the third shark attack in the region in less than two months. Despite the deaths, scientists warned aginst overreacting, and conservationists in the U.S. are pushing to enact stronger laws to protect shark species.

To better understand the conservation movement, I accompanied R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program director, Neil Hammerschlag in a boat off the Florida Keys. We set a series of lines with bait in the water in the hopes of pulling up a shark we could measure, sample, and tag before releasing.

While most people go out of their way to avoid sharks, the folks at the University of Miami Rosensteil School’s conservation program will do anything to find them in the water.

After we pulled up up a dozen buoys, we started feeling a bit desperate. “Kiss the bait!” University of Miami doctoral researcher Austin Gallagher told me, before adding, “I’m not kidding.”

I caved, and kissed a piece of barracuda, leaving a bright fuchsia lipstick mark on it. But even that didn’t work.

In the end, Hammerschlag directed two of his researchers, David Shiffman and Robbie Christian, to do a “bull shark dance,” in which they pawed their feet and made horn figures with their hands on the sides of their heads.

Apparently it worked, since shortly after that we pulled up a six-foot, five-inch immature male bull shark. The researchers — along with some if the journalists, such as myself — measured and sampled the shark, attached a satellite tracking tag to it, and let it go, all within the space of about seven minutes.

That sort of research is one of the reasons the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is likely to vote on Nov. 16 to ban the harvest of tiger and three types of hammerhead sharks — great, scalloped and smooth — in state waters. Amanda Nalley, the commission’s spokeswoman, said the seven-member commission was prompted to take action because “state waters provide essential habitat” for both juveline sharks and ones giving birth.

Environmentalists have won a series of new protections for sharks this year, arguing that the predators have been decimated by indiscriminate industrial fishing and fishing for their fins, which are used in shark’s fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Between 26 million and 73 million sharks a year are targeted for their fins, scientists say, and roughly a third of all shark species face some threat of extinction.

“People are very excited about protecting these species,” she said in an interview Tuesday, adding that the public reaction has been mostly positive.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.


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