Monster Shark: A Great White Christmas on Cape Cod

On December 18, 2010, I heard a report that a boat encountered a very large great white shark (reportedly 20+ ft. long) that was entangled in fishing gear a few miles off the Chatham, Massachusetts coast.

Great White Shark off Chatham, MA

Great White Shark off Chatham, MA December 18, 2010. The shark looks to me like it may have been dead for some time before it was hauled up.

I am a commercial fisherman myself and I know all the local fisherman. So, after some digging around, I was sent three cell phone pictures of the monster great white shark from an anonymous source. The pics were taken while the crew freed the dead shark from the gear.

Why all the secrecy?

Well, great white sharks are a prohibited species and have been for years, which means that they are illegal to land (bring in to shore). Which I would think, has limited modern study of the species. Since no one is landing any Great White sharks (even ones that are caught incidentally), researchers are probably not examining many Great White sharks, even though there is little doubt that Great White shark numbers are on the rise locally.

Management: In the Atlantic, white sharks are a prohibited species and if a white shark is caught, it must released with a minimum of injury and without taking the animal out of the water. — NMFS Fact Sheet (typo and all)

Cold Water Great White Shark

Cold Water Great White Shark. Lobsters love dead sharks.

Now with the shark pictured here, it was already dead and had been for some time. The crew was not fishing for sharks; they were hauling groundfish gillnets, which is a fixed gear bottom fishery, meaning that the nets are anchored to the sea bottom and stand up about four feet off the bottom. They are marked on each end with buoys at the surface. Once in a great while, a non-target species, such as a shark, will get tangled in fixed fishing gear. This is known as an incidental catch.

Very Large Great White Shark

Monster Great White Shark off Chatham 12/18/2010

After the incident a few years ago where a live humpback whale was released unharmed from fishing gear off Chatham, the captain was charged with a crime for releasing the unharmed whale from his gear. That captain faced a $100,000 fine and jail time for releasing the whale. While he didn’t get fined or go to jail, he did end up with a substantial legal bill from the incident.

So, you can see why the the boat involved in the December 2010 monster shark incident wishes to remain anonymous.

While entanglements and incidental catches like this are rare off Cape Cod, great white shark entanglements are even more rare, especially in late December. It is snowing here right now as I write this and Great White sharks are usually a Summer/Fall visitor to Cape Cod, so this will likely qualify as a super rare event.

Great White Sharks were seen in Pleasant Bay

Last Summer, Great White Sharks were seen in Pleasant Bay

It has been widely reported that great whites have been off Chatham for several years now, drawn to the area by the ever expanding seal population. In the Fall of 2009, five great whites were tagged with satellite tracking beacons, one of which ended up in Florida last January. There were reports that last Summer, great white sharks were seen inside Chatham Harbor and all the way up into Pleasant Bay.

Why did a great white shark get tangled up in the fishing gear?

We will never know the exact reason the great white shark was entangled in the nets. Only a necropsy could yield the answer to that question. While I am not a marine biologist, I have been a commercial fisherman since 1986. So, here are the two most likely scenarios:

It is widely known that seals dive to the bottom and feed on the fish that are caught in fishing nets… and Great White sharks feed on seals. So,  it is possible that the shark was feeding on seals that were feeding on the fish in the nets, leading it to get wrapped up while in pursuit of the seals, where it subsequently met its demise.

The other possibility is that the shark died from other causes, sank to the bottom and got tangled in the nets as it rolled along the bottom with the tide. I did not get any details beyond the pictures, but the shark to me, looks like it may have been dead for some time.

Why this whole incident was an epic waste

It’s a shame that this monster shark, which was already dead when the fishermen encountered it, could not have been landed without a legal hassle and/or a hefty fine for the crew. Instead of becoming a cool news story and learning something about why great white sharks are still this far North in late December, a really big great white shark is rolling around on the sea floor right now, rotting away and being eaten by bottom-dwelling scavengers. Although I am sure that shark is covered with lobsters right now, that’s not really doing anybody any good.

In the old days, we could and would tow a shark like that in. Biologists would be notified, and it would be hung, weighed, measured, examined and dissected in the name of research. Now all incidental catches are discarded and very rarely reported for obvious reasons.

Things we will never know

  • Why are there great white sharks off Chatham a week before Christmas when they supposedly prefer warmer water?
  • How big was the shark and how much did it weigh?
  • Was it a male or female great white shark? How old was it?
  • What actually killed the shark? Was it diseased?
  • What was it eating?

It is really too bad that nothing was learned from this opportunity, except for the fact that fisherman are leery of reporting these incidents because of the risk of prosecution.

There were no winners in this story

The fisherman lost, the shark lost and most of all, science lost a great opportunity to study this animal. What a shame. This incident is a perfect example of the ongoing practice of wasteful fisheries management and regulations.

In incidents like this, commercial fishermen should be able to land the animal in the name of research and be exempt from any legal or regulatory hassles. The study of this animal, which was already dead, would have benefited the species as a whole and expanded our knowledge of the great white shark in New England waters.

#monstershark #NMFS #epicwaste


Monster Shark: A Great White Christmas on Cape Cod — 27 Comments

  1. Great article, I am also a commercial fisherman. Your perspective is on the money. Good job!

  2. You are on target with this post about white sharks and Govt. regulations.

    If you bring in a dead white shark, you could get caught up in that same technicality mindset and be in for a big hassle.
    Even if you win the case it will cost you time and money.

    If you call in to the Coast Guard and say “I have a dead white shark out here at Lat/ Lon. Do you want to come get it or do you want me to bring it in”?
    Believe me you are in for an inter-agency squabble, and an interrogation.

    The problem is with the Federal Govt. and not with the State.
    Rules have to be worked out to allow white shark info to come ashore. –

    Whites have about the widest tolerance of water temperatures of any shark species. They swim in water from the 40s up to 80 deg. So having one here in December is not unusual, although most white sharks would prefer to move on to warmer waters an individual could hang around.

    On my website I have a 1938 photo of a white that was here off Plymouth, in FEBRUARY. You can see it on this page New England Great Whites – Tom

  3. Really excellent points. Laws to protect the species that do more harm than good in these types of incidents. Still, tough to regulate.

  4. While I see your points about being unable to deal with sharks, whales, etc. due to governmental rules, I submit that during nearly thirty years of longlining (tub-trawling) I NEVER killed a Shark (other than dogfish) or mammal while using gear that was designed to catch the very same ground-fish that you now target. Part, if not most, of the problem is the gear type and the duration of its occupation of the bottom

  5. I understand where you are coming from having done quite a bit of tub trawling myself. However, I do remember catching a handful of seals over the years while longlining, but let’s not get into a battle over fixed gear types.

    This story is about if you did catch a great white shark while tub trawling and being able to bring it in for research instead of just discarding it.

  6. That is crazy. We should be able to atleast take a dead great white to shore to look at it for science. They need to really find out more about the species.

  7. One point I failed to mention is that the sharks WERE there, and they DID mess with the fish already on the hooks. The sharks always won the battle with the relatively insignificant gangings (gangions, snoods) and pliable hooks. I am not a shark lover or hater, nor do I have any great affinity for seals and porpoises, mainly because I never bothered them and they never bothered me enough to make any difference to my success or failure.

  8. Yeah, it’d be great to haul in the white, no harm no foul. The problem is how does anyone know the fish was “found” dead (not to suggest otherwise in this case). Unfortunately the honesty policy doesn’t fly because there’s no way to account for the bad apples who could abuse it. The government would rather concede the science in order to prevent creating an incentive to “find” whites in their gear. It’s a shame but what can you do?

  9. You’re exactly right, but upon examination they would likely be able to tell how and when it became dead, so I don’t think it would be that easy to cheat.

    I know of only one other similar “reported” great white incident locally over the last few years, so it is doubtful that anyone would be “targeting” them. Plus, it’s a hassle to bring (tow) a shark like that in and there’s no money in it.

  10. The reason a Great White is still here is at this time if year is because it is still ingesting sufficient calories to provide the energy required to survive in our yet warm waters.
    It is a shame the laws are such to penalize our fishermen for doing the right thing. I enjoyed your article.
    And I am a biologist with training in marine sciences. I do NOT work in that field as I prefer not to starve. Sound familiar??

  11. I don’t think anybody is seeing the real picture here! Doesn’t look like groundfish gear as much as it’s lobster gear. Poor lobstermen!!!!

  12. Great article. I hope some other outlets pick this up. 20-ft plus is a monster! I was windsurfing there two summers ago. Not anymore.

  13. Great article! As the mother of a commercial fisherman, I know how important it is to them to protect the marine environment upon which they depend for their livelihood. Unfortunately, Federal regulations – more often than not, assume everyone is guilty of something until proven innocent. This makes it very difficult when a Captain knows that doing what he feels is the right thing will bring only legal and financial woes.

    To all of you fishermen, be safe and prosperous!

  14. When hunting seals, Great Whites stick to the bottom using their gray backs as camouflage. This way they can launch a vicious surprise attack on a seal at the surface. That far up in Pleasant Bay, this attack strategy would put the shark right on the bottom and in the path of the nets. Also, Great Whites have been found in water as deep as 2000ft and at temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Finding one in that cold of water is rare, but not unprecedented.

  15. >> That far up in Pleasant Bay…

    The great white shark pictured in this article was found offshore a few miles out off Chatham in the Atlantic.

    Sharks have been seen inside Pleasant Bay during the summer/fall, but this particular great white shark was not caught in Pleasant Bay.

  16. That is not lobster gear, if you look close enough to the hauler you can see the net, also you can see it beside the shark.

  17. Hi Everyone
    I talked to a Federal shark biologist about this recently and was told Federal Law Enforcement people are the ones who have to be brought into the discussion on how to handle this dead white shark situation in the future. This could become a winter project for some of us.

    ps As we know from the 2009 taggings those Chatham tagged white sharks headed for Florida.

    There were 8 more whites taggged the summer of 2010 off Chatham.
    One of those tags is programmed to release this month.(January)

    I got this in an e-mail recently from a shark biologist in Florida. (Ponce Inlet is just south of Daytona Beach) – Tom

    Jan 4,2011- FYI – “the white sharks have showed up down here. The first large shark was spotted by a headboat last week about 22 miles ESE of Ponce Inlet, FL in 90′ of water. It followed a black sea bass to the surface as it was being reeled up.”

    Tom here- That shark may, or may not be a tagged shark from Chatham MA. – Tom

  18. We have have been talking about this @ the Barber Shop and its unanimous! A Great White Waste!!! We all loose! And the fishermen are the ones out there bustin there a$s and taking the risks! It’s soo rare to here about them out there so late in the year! GREAT ARTICLE!!! THE COMMERCIAL FISHERMEN SHOULD BE EXEMPT FROM THE THAT SPECIFIC LAW! IT’S A GOD DAMN SHAME!!!

  19. Hi Jeremy and group

    I have been doing some background work on this, and right now have the following feelings about the problem of dead white sharks in FEDERAL waters

    The STATE is not the problem. If you find a dead white in Mass. STATE waters call in, and you will be allowed to bring it in.
    FEDERAL waters is another matter, and that is where the problem is.

    The Federal Govt. and its agencies are the ones who need to make the changes.
    You have to deal with NOAA and its different groups, and Fed Law enforcement.
    Because it is not a local issue(State), the FEDERAL biologists in Hawaii, California,Florida etc will get their two cents into this, as will other Federal people around the country.

    Some people feel that you might encourage people to kill whites,and bring them in, if there is some kind of a reward involved- like getting the $10,000-$15,000 jaws. (From the size of some of these whites possibly $20,000)

    Figuring out a reimbursement for fuel, time, and damaged fishing gear,to avoid an incentive for killing a white, might be to much for a Dinasor like the the FEDERAL Govt.with so many peole involved in the decision.

    Another important factor that get overlooked is there are many anti-fishing groups with money and lawyers ready to pounce on the fishermen, and will lobby the Feds to solve the dead white shark problem by just banning gill netting, particularly in those areaswhere white sharks are known to swim. (and I bet other fishing groups like hookers,draggers, and recreational groups would cry crocodile tears over that)

    Just some things to consider. – tom

  20. A similar situation occurred last year off the coast of Oregon when a crabber found a 15 foot dead GW trapped between the wire crab pot and the lines attaching it. They towed it in and the state did a necropsy. I do not know how far offshore he was when this happened but I believe the Feds declined to fine him.

  21. Hi Barry

    What you described happening in Oregon also happened here in Massachusetts.

    In 1996 a Gill netter in Mass Bay east of Boston, came up with a white shark. The STATE biologists wanted it for research.
    The gillnetter could not get the large shark onboard, so another boat was used to bring it in. The STATE biologists did their necropsy on the white shark.

    The following year the FEDERAL Govt. protected the white and no one wants to get involved anymore with the hassle of dealing with FEDERAL agencies.

    I dug out a photo of that white shark I mentioned, and put it on my comcast website. You can see it HERE

    Don’t expect this level of co-operation now that the FEDS are involved, they are more interested in regulations being enforced than in making the best of a bad situation and getting some research done, when a rare opportunity presents itself. – Tom

  22. As a mate aboard numerous tub trawlers out of chatham for twenty years i find it impossible to believe that capt. bobby ryder never hauled a dead tail wrapped mako or porbeagle up to his rail. Lets be real bob.

  23. Thank you I love the White Shark and have sense I was a child. The movie Jaws almost ruined that. By reading whatever I can get my hands on to educate myself I now have a health fear. I understand that they can be dangerous but so can dogs. I will do all I can to help in the fight to protect the white. Thank you for all that you do.

  24. Your article was wonderful, and I agree on the needing to not have fines, etc. I also think you are a lucky individual to have seen one of those greats so up close and personal! I envy you. =]

  25. There are definitely more than the 2 scenarios given as why the great white was in the net!!! The net had fish in it? Didn’t it! What’s to say the shark didn’t try and eat the fish caught in the net. People w ho say that big great whites only eat big meals (ie) like seals etc. it’s COMPLETELT NOT TRUE! I live in Wallaroo South Australia and am a armature snapper fisher enthusiast And see great whites all the time. I regularly have great whites take small baits like tommy ruffs (Australian herring) and pilchards. Now I’m talking about sharks up to 14 feet long. I’ve lost a number of steel burley buckets taken as well. A good friend of mine is a fisheries officer here in SA and has had the same experience many times over . So I’m more concerned with why are the larger great whites so desperate for these small baits ( wether in nets or not) because these seem to becoming more regular. Is it that the natural fish stocks seals etc are being depleted? Here in SA we have a snapper ban ever year when the snapper tend to spawn. I believe we Ned to fish for the future not just for today. I have fished these waters for 30 years and am seeing more great whites than ever before but believe its because they are more deperte to find adequate food supplies. If we did a genuine
    survey where I lived with the armature fishers about the amount of sightings of great whites you would be amazed! I monitor the
    sharks I see and must say I have seen so many new ones it’s amazing! Not only this but are now seeing the great whites in
    groups which was not normal here before. I love and respect these great sharks but have concerns about there new habits and
    why these patterns are emerging. I have a video clip of a 12 foot great white on my face book page where you see the shark close up. This shark ate my steel burley bucket! ( no joke) I believe they have the ability to regurgitate thank goodness.

  26. Great article! I think that EVERYONE (locals, visitors, fisherman & scientists) need WAY MORE more education about Great Whites as well as all other ocean life including seals. As long as species are not being killed for research, anything that is hauled in by a fisherman that is already dead should be examined and learned from. People will never stop eating seafood and fishemans nets and cages will always be pulled up with unintentional catch. Fisherman should not be fined in situations like this! I love Cape Cod and will contine to vacation in this wonderful place. I wish that humans would realize that they did not create the earth and are killing most of it’s natural resources (oil, wildlife, trees etc…). This WILL catch up to us at some point in many different ways! Just let the seals eat the fish and let the sharks eat the seals. The first lesson that we learn in life is to SHARE! The ocean is plentiful, go further out to make your catch. Don’t go in the water if you see seals and put up netting around swimming areas at beaches!