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Open Season on US Coastal Sharks

While there has been much a do internationally about Australia’s culling practices on large sharks in their coastal waters, there is about to be a similar event to take place in Florida come January 1st, 2016. 

No, it’s not because we are faced with a similar perception that the east coast of the US is inundated by too many sharks running around eating people (which we are not), but for the fact that NOAA’s National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) rescheduled the opening date for the Commercial Shark Fishing Season in the Atlantic from summer to the first day of the year January 1, 2016.

As a resident of Palm Beach County (South Florida), this news, which by the way was posted on NOAA’s website November 30th, 2015, is something I find particularly disturbing.  I will explain the reason why.

During the months between December and April, scores of sharks migrate down the coast to a narrow stretch of Florida’s east coast for the very same reason tourist flock to the state each winter – to escape the cold! The most prominent local most will converge is between Stuart and City of West Palm Beach. For larger coastal species like hammerhead, tiger, lemon, bull and sandbar, the warmer waters are not only inviting, it also places them in a precarious position highly exploited by commercial fishing.

How so, you might ask?

Unique from other parts of Florida’s coast, the underwater topography features the narrowest continental shelf anywhere along North America’s East Coast.  Offshore of the City of West Palm Beach, the shelf reached its narrowest point, spanning less than 3 miles / 4.8 Kilometers in width. So when sharks move up or down the coast, the narrow shelf acts a little bit like a bottleneck, causing them to concentrate in greater numbers where water temps are most desirable.  To coin the phase “like shooting fish in a barrel” should help complete the picture.

One species that concerns me the most is the lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris).

As large coastal species go, lemons can grow impressively large - measuring up to 8 feet/2.5 meters long, weighing up to 300 lbs./140 kgs. Between their size and mouth equipped with sharp, short spiked shape teeth for capturing fish, have all the bearings of a pretty serious customer. Among divers, particularly underwater photographers, they are local favorite due their highly mild manner behavior, seldom getting highly excitable over anything.

My own personal experience with these lemons began as far back as January 2001 when I came upon over 40 adult size sharks, resting on the bottom in formation like cars in a parking lot. Contacting Dr. Samuel Gruber, one of the world’s most renowned experts on lemon sharks, confirmed that this particular aggregation behavior was one of a kind, not known anywhere else in the world. This finding set in motion a highly extensive study under the auspices of Doc Gruber’s Bimini Shark Lab. Information gained from the Jupiter Lemon Shark Project was able to fill in new chapters about this shark’s natural history that were previously unknown.

In 2010, findings from Dr. Gruber’s research played an instrumental part in the State of Florida passing into law and granting complete protective status for lemon sharks in state waters.

The reasoning for this action was based the shark’s slow-growth rate, which makes them extremely vulnerable to overfishing. Lemons reach sexual maturity at 12-15 years of age, and reproduction takes place every second or third year at most, with the number of pups in a litter averaging between 6 and 18. Add to that a juvenile mortality rate of 40-60 percent the first years of development and you have a very low recruitment rate for the species.

Two years, January 2013, NOAA delivered a major blow by repositioning the Commercial Shark Fishing Season from July to January. The net toll on lemons was devastating with NOAA maintaining that very few lemon sharks were reported by the fish houses in 2013. 

This does not surprise me for two reasons: 

First, it is common practice among fish houses to label most large sharks as bull sharks to expedite entries.

The other, the actual number of adult lemons left in the Jupiter area was not that large considering the overall population was perhaps in the 200 for 300’s for the entire Atlantic coast.

As a means of tracking the movements of living lemon sharks, Dr. Gruber and his team or 12 year period had placed a variety of acoustic tags on a large number of adult lemons they where able to track through FACT receiver array, which ranges from Key West all the way north to Nova Scotia. 

When Ph.D candidate Steve Kessel (member of Dr. Gruber’s research team) analyzed the ‘acoustic catches’ collected from FACT array’, the data for 2013 said something else entirely different.

The most incontrovertible was a sharp decline starting in 2011 that ended at almost “zero” for the number contact pings from returning lemon sharks. 

NOAA’s position on this information bordered on ridiculous saying lemon sharks are still alive but have decided after at least a dozen years, to leave the Jupiter area and perhaps stay in the Carolinas.

But most interesting footnote to this saga, during our first battle to get NOAA to change the opening dates, with them insisting that there was “no data” proving lemon sharks, or for that matter any other large coastal species of sharks were aggregated here, the commercial fishermen certainly knew it. By NOAA’s own admission, the commercial fishers themselves want the opening date pushed back to July.

In a letter from Nicholas A. Farmer, Ph.D., NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office back in Septmeber 2013, Dr. Farmer wrote:

"While there have been a few lemon sharks reported as purchased, there have not many many - in fact, there have been fewer this year than most years.  Most of the lemon sharks have been reported by FL dealers, which is what we expected.

When we pushed for more information, we were told that essentially the fishermen in that area were upset that we opened the shark fisheries Jan 1 in 2013.  They preferred it when we opened in July, as we had the few years previous to that (historically, we always opened the sharks fisheries Jan 1 - the change to July only lasted a few years).  We are in the middle of a comment period for next year's specifications.  If the fishermen continue to have concerns about a Jan 1 start date, they should submit their comments now.  The comment period ends Sept 23."

What the letter was essentially addressing was commercial shark fishermen north of Florida were bitching that the South Florida/Treasure Coast fishermen where getting an unfair advantaged due that they had far better access to the sharks (being that they were aggregating there) and they did not.

By the way, that comment period for next year's specifications that Dr. Farmer mentioned is opened predominately to the “stake holders” (meaning commercial fisherman) in addition to biologist involved in fisheries management.

So, unless you are member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council - and/or the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council - you are not going to hear about these meetings because they are generally not open to non-stake holders.  Yes, it sucks.

So here we are again. The dates are set once again for January 1st, and we have little chance, sad to say, in getting NOAA to stop, rescind, change their decision on this seasonal opening. Sure there has petition or two directed at NOAA, but from my own experience they seldom get that much attention.

But, I for one don’t believe the fight is over. If there is to be any consolation prize to be had, here is what I suggest you do.

Being that Lemon Sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) are a “protected species” in Florida Waters which extends 3 miles out on Florida’s East Coast. It falls into the FWC’s jurisdiction to enforce it, at least for any actions inside State waters.

Taking into consideration, that the FWC Commission is still try to recover from their decision to open a hunting season on Florida black bear, which turned into complete debacle, not mention media nightmare that left them bloodied has created and opportunity. An opportunity to redeem themselves by “doing their job” in something that matters to us Floridians.

What I propose is not create another petition, but write a letter to each and every member of the FWC Commission, which you will find right here -

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