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.
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)
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.
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.
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