High-seas hijinks: FAU gets grant to study savvy sharks who rob recreational fishermen of their catch

BOCA RATON — In the coastal waters of South Florida, the smartest and most opportunistic sharks gather around recreational fishing boats.

“They know a boat means food,” captain Scott Fawcett said.

Sharks have learned fishermen provide an easy meal of red snapper, kingfish, bonito, sailfish or almost anything else. While the fish is being reeled in, the shark will chomp off a huge chunk, and sometimes gobble up the entire fish, including the hook, a practice that can be harmful to the shark because it can sustain damage from the embedded hook.

Scientists from Florida Atlantic University, along with scientists from Mississippi State University, received a grant from NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) to study shark depredation and its biological and economic impacts in the southeastern U.S.

Shark depredation, the practice of sharks snatching a fisherman’s catch before it can be reeled in, or landed, angers recreational fishermen, whose industry provided Florida four million fishermen, more than 88,000 jobs, and $9 billion in revenue in 2019.

Researchers will work with recreational fishermen to figure out what types of sharks are responsible for the depredation, what types of fish they’re eating, where it’s happening, and, possibly, find a solution to the problem.

“A lot of these fishermen have had to really change their fishing practices,” said Matt Ajemian, a FAU Harbor Branch assistant research professor and leader of the study.

“I’m a scientist. If something happened to my building that prevented me from being a scientist, I would be pissed off, too.”

This red snapper, held by captain Tom Guoba, was chomped by a shark before it could be landed, or reeled on to the boat. FAU researchers recently received a grant to study shark depredation, which is hurting Florida's multi-billion dollar recreational fishing industry.

This red snapper, held by captain Tom Guoba, was chomped by a shark before it could be landed, or reeled on to the boat. FAU researchers recently received a grant to study shark depredation, which is hurting Florida’s multi-billion dollar recreational fishing industry. (David Hay Jones)

Shark depredation might be an unintended consequence of years of shark conservation efforts. Some parts of the Atlantic could be teeming with sharks.

“Now that these conservation actions have been put in place, and these management plans have been put in place, what we’re actually seeing is something more natural, more healthy,” said Lauran Brewster, a senior research fellow at FAU Harbor Branch, “and we need to learn how to respond to that without retaliating against a species that’s just living where it’s supposed to live.”

Scientists will enlist fishermen’s help. They’ll ask them to document shark depredation, including where it happened, when it happened, what type of shark was involved, and what type of fish was involved.

Ajemian said only 20% of sharks involved in depredation have been identified so it’s tough for scientists to know what species are the biggest violators. They’d also like to know whether certain fish are attacked more than others.

Ajemian and other researchers have already been using a Facebook group that has roughly 6,000 fishermen, mostly from Florida’s east coast, to access photos and details of a number of shark depredation incidents.

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Along those lines, scientists will employ cutting edge technology that includes swabbing the bite wounds on fish and using remnant DNA to help figure out which shark species took the fish.

Fawcett said the shark depredation has increased in the past five or six years. He said a boat led by an “irresponsible” captain can suffer shark depredation 50 times in a day.

“If you get on a spot and you don’t realize you can’t get a fish past them, a lot of guys will just lose one after another after another, hoping they’re going to be able to sneak one past them eventually,” Fawcett said.

Ajemian and Brewster hope their study will be key to striking a balance between shark preservation and a thriving recreational fishing industry.

“If we can help bridge the gap between what a healthy ecosystem should look like and what management measures are in place, then I think that’s really helpful,” Brewster said.

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