Photo: Alex Steyn // Unsplash

Photo: Alex Steyn // Unsplash

The Inertia

Though shark attacks are incredibly rare, they occupy an outsized place in the mind of many ocean users. For instance, a spate of shark bites on the east coast of the United States has led to increased shark mitigation in the form of drone patrols. On the West Coast, human-caused climate change has led to increased sightings of white sharks in California. Places like Sydney, Australia still put up shark nets every summer, despite protests from conservationists. On the other hand, even with a seeming onslaught of stories of dangerous and sometimes deadly shark encounters, data from the Global Shark attack file analyzed by Time indicates the rate of shark attacks per capita seems to be relatively unchanged over the years.

In most cases, the discourse relating to shark encounters is generally focused on attacks directly on humans. However, there is another group of ocean users that have been dealing with their own brand of shark bite: recreational anglers.

“Shark depredation, the full or partial removal of a hooked fish by a shark before it is landed, is anecdotally increasing in the United States,” says a study done by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The study found that 77 percent of anglers who participated in a poll said that they encountered at least one shark or had one fish lost to a shark over the past five years. The rest of the study focused primarily on the emotional response anglers had to these experiences, which would often lead to negative feelings towards sharks and sometimes specific targeting of sharks themselves. In the study’s conclusion, the researchers wrote, “Considering depredation frequency was directly tied to negative emotional response, which in turn influenced the likelihood of targeting and harvesting sharks, reducing shark-angler encounters should be a high priority for managers.”

A new House bill introduced earlier this year aims to tackle this perceived issue of shark depredation. The Supporting the Health of Aquatic Systems through Research, Knowledge and Enhanced Dialog Act (SHARKED for short) seeks to establish a task force within the U.S. fisheries management community that would be responsible for studying and improving the coordination and communication among fisheries managers on shark depredation.

“The task force would just really kind of help us understand what’s going on here, why are shark encounters on the rise so much and how we can kind of build this foundational knowledge to then improve the fisheries management issue going forward,” said John Chambers, the public affairs manager at the American Sportfishing Association, the trade association that represents the recreational fishing industry.

As the bill is being primarily spearheaded by the recreational fishing industry, the discourse around it is primarily focused on the impact shark depredation has to anglers, rather than environmental concerns. “We represent the recreational fishing industry, so that’s our focus with this,” said Chambers. Similarly, statements from the politicians who have supported the bill have primarily focused on the emotional responses that recreational anglers have to shark depredation. “It’s becoming way too common for Louisiana’s anglers to reel in a hooked red snapper only to realize it’s been chomped in half by sharks,” said Congressman Garret Graves, one of the champions of the bill. “We already pay too much in taxes – the tax collector taking more off the top is salt in the wound.”

However, Chambers pointed out that there were also financial considerations regarding shark depredation. “Sometimes if there is going to be high shark activity in a place, it could potentially lead to shutdowns of fishery regions,” he explained. “If you’re going to see closures happen because of these sharks, then people aren’t going to be able to go fishing. You’re going to have lost hotel bookings, lost charter companies, sales of even everything down to tackle and gasoline for boats going out on the water. So there definitely are some long-term risks to the industry. We obviously understand sharks are a vitally important part of the ecosystem. They are going to be out there, but we just want to make sure that anglers and sharks can both enjoy the water separately.”

Another cornerstone of the bill is the theory that shark depredation is the result of learned behavior, an idea that Chambers brought up several times during our conversation. “Fishery managers want to make sure that this isn’t a learned behavior and that sharks don’t automatically just go, ‘Okay, there’s boats on the water, there’s free fish to catch,'” said Chambers. This idea is specifically cited in the language of the bill, which mentions as one of its research priorities, “how sharks become habituated to humans and thus lead to more interactions between sharks and humans.” However, this may be a case of begging the question, as it is not a conclusively proven fact that shark depredation occurs as a result of learned behavior. While there is some scientific research that may indicate the occurrence of this phenomena, Chambers clarified that the theory was largely based on anecdotal evidence. “That’s frankly kind of why we want the SHARKED act to be in place, is seeing all this research that could be done. Then we can definitely understand and see what is going on.”

Beyond simply researching the cause of shark depredation, the bill also lays out the goal of developing strategies to prevent it in the future. The first is through active prevention, described in the bill as “Techniques and strategies to reduce harmful interactions between sharks and humans, including the development and use of non-lethal deterrents.” The bill also cites the need for education for fishers so they can change their behavior in order to reduce shark interaction.

The SHARKED Act passed out of committee with unanimous consent on September 20, 2023. The next step is for the bill to go to the House and receive a vote. Beyond that, Chambers noted that proponents of the bill also want to see its introduction to the Senate.


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