I have targeted many species of fish over my years as an angler, but nothing creates such a feeling of anticipation and excitement as a day of shark fishing. Trying to sleep the night before is just about impossible. Quotes from “Jaws” such as, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and “This shark, swallow you whole,” play on repeat in my head. Unfortunately, those same quotes have painted a misleading picture about the life of one of the ocean’s most important inhabitants.
For years, folklore and Hollywood have portrayed sharks as mindless eating machines that will consume anything or anyone in their sights. This image cannot be further from the truth. Having worked with sharks for 13 years at the Long Island Aquarium, I can tell you first hand that they do not have an endless appetite, and by no means are they mindless. I have frequently witnessed sharks showing absolutely no interest in food during a feeding session, even if several days had lapsed since the last feeding attempt. If food were on the mind of a shark 24/7, it would eagerly take my offering of a fresh mackerel anytime it was offered. Additionally, individual sharks showed a preference for various food items. For example, one particular shark would not eat bluefish, no matter how many times I would offer it. Herring, on the other hand, would be readily taken, even moments after refusing a bluefish. If sharks were truly mindless, why would they pass on one type of food only to eat another?
Big or small, all sharks deserve our highest respect as they have been in existence for the last 400 million years. That is 200 million years before dinosaurs roamed the Earth! Over this time, sharks have evolved many adaptations that have enabled them to maintain their position as the ocean’s apex predator. One such adaptation is their teeth. Most animals have one set of adult teeth. As time marches on, these teeth will show signs of wear and tear, and in some cases be damaged or lost forever. Without a healthy set of teeth to process food, an animal could easily starve to death. This is a problem that a shark will never encounter. A shark’s jaw is made up of many rows of teeth. Each row is like a conveyor belt, and when a tooth is lost or damaged, a new one will move forward to take its place. This process ensures that sharks will have a sharp set of teeth for their entire life. A single shark can lose a staggering 30,000 teeth over its lifetime.
Similar to humans, sharks possess the five senses of hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. Overall, a shark’s senses are far more receptive than ours, and if that were not enough, sharks possess an extra sixth sense. Sharks have the ability to detect electrical fields through the use of electroreceptors known as ampullae of Lorenzini. These jelly-filled pores located around the snout of a shark can sense the electrical field given off by potential prey. This capability can be very helpful when hunting in dark or murky conditions, or trying to locate prey that is buried in the sand. It is even believed by some scientists that the ampullae of Lorenzini are used to read the electromagnetic field of the Earth to aid in long-distance migrations. Some species have been known to travel thousands of miles, only to return to the same location year after year. One particular blue shark originally tagged off Port MacDonnell, South Australia was recaptured five years later off South Africa, a straight- line distance of 5,073 nautical miles.
Of all the superior adaptations sharks have evolved, one adaptation that might lead to their ultimate downfall is their reproductive strategy. In recent years, there have been major concerns that sharks have finally met their match in a face-off with man. Through fishing by-catch, the popularity of shark-fin soup, entanglement in barrier nets meant to protect swimmers, and simply out of fear, it’s estimated that 40 to 70 million sharks are killed annually. Due to this slaughter, many populations are declining rapidly.
Most of the large shark species we are familiar with take 10 to 15 years to reach maturity, and once mature, only give birth to a couple pups every other year. At this reproductive pace, it is impossible for some species of sharks to maintain sustainable populations.
For many anglers, there is no greater challenge than besting the ocean’s top predator, the shark. Through responsible fishing practices, we can ensure that these powerful predators are here for future generations.