Quickly, the Florida Marine Patrol issued warnings to swimmers and began flights along the shoreline. A school of 200 blacktip sharks was spotted in the area, but that, in itself, was not unusual. According to Ren Lohoefener of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Pascagoula, Miss., schools of sharks often congregate along sandy beaches, intermixed with swimmers and fishermen. In recent years, NMFS biologists have conducted aerial surveys along the northern beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Looking down from 1,000 feet at the white surf, they have seen hundreds of sharks. "They're just sitting there, right on those sandbars in two or three feet of water," says Carol Roden, a biologist with the project. "Aside from hammerheads, we can't tell what species they are from up there. Sometimes we see people wading out and surf casting right next to them. I want to shout, 'Get out of there!' "
The truth is, sharks and people have been swimming together for a long time, and people are generally not bothered by the fish. It's estimated that 40 to 100 shark attacks occur per year worldwide, fewer than 20% of them fatal. But to the family of Jon Martin, the statistics are cold comfort.
What happened, then, in Panama City (which, in the grimmest of ironies, is only 40 miles from where the movie Jaws II was shot)? Why did that shark attack when it did? Or did several sharks attack? Mike Brim, a marine biologist who happened to be nearby at the time, reported that the water was unusually murky in the area at the time of the attack. Hurricane Gilbert, one of the largest storms of the century, hit the Yucatan Peninsula the next day. Hurricane Florence had recently passed near the Panama City area, and with it had come ultralow barometric readings and disrupted surf patterns. Could any of these occurrences have affected the shark? Or was the attacker a sick or injured shark? Would it strike again?
On June 29 of this year another group of divers was spearfishing on a wreck nine miles off Panama City. Sharks appeared, and the divers fled the water. Witnesses aboard the dive boat Duchess saw Rick Webster, a policeman from Bartlett, Tenn., frantically waving his spear gun; his personal flotation device was inflated. Suddenly he was snatched violently beneath the surface and was never seen again. Was it a shark? Nobody knows for sure. It's a big ocean, and sharks move in the shadows. Considering that sharks are among the most ancient of creatures—they have been around for 400 million years—and are among the most diverse—there are 350 species, ranging in size from six-ounce cigar sharks to 15-ton whale sharks—it is amazing how little man knows about the fish. The following report is the result of a study conducted aboard a commercial fishing boat, another aboard a sportfishing vessel, and with a landmark research project.
Long a traditional dish in Asia, Europe and Latin America, shark—often billed as mako, although several species are succulently edible—has become popular fare in parts of the U.S. over the past decade. Dr. Robert Hueter of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., has monitored the increasing rate of commercial shark fishing in Florida during the 1980s. Often the number of sharks landed has doubled from one year to the next, and now this $3 million fishery takes well over 100,000 sharks each year. Many end up as domestic table fare, but a lot are pursued for their fins, which are much sought after in the Far East for soup.
The commercial fishing boat we sailed on in May 1988 was specially built for long-lining and was on only its second voyage. Its huge reel spewed out mile after mile of line into the night sea somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans. It was hard and dangerous fishing. As the running line played out, the crew worked feverishly, snapping weights and hooks baited with snake eels onto dropper lines. Several hours later, the men began the slow process of hauling back. "Got a shark coming," a crew member hollered. A hard snatch yanked up a six-foot blacktip through the starboard gateway. The shark went wild, thrashing, beating its body back and forth. With a loud whack, a blow from a machete parted the sand-papery skin and left a deep cut behind the head. The shark stiffened and twitched. Another swipe, and off came the tail, blood gushing out of the fish's caudal artery in a steady stream. Then another chop took off the first dorsal fin, then the second dorsal—dried, they will sell for $20 to $25 a pound. The shark gave a violent twitch as members of the crew twisted its head around and around to remove it; they threw it, with the still-attached guts, into the sea. The kidneys were blasted out of the carcass with a deck hose, to prevent the flesh from being contaminated with the strong smell and taste of urea. The finless, headless "trunk" was heaved down into a bin to be brought to market.
More sharks came aboard, and thick clotted blood ran through the scuppers and stained the sea. The trunks piled up like cordwood. It took a hydraulic arm to lift a 10-foot, 680-pound female dusky shark aboard. Inside her belly a dozen unborn pups squirmed around in the uterus, visible through the membrane. Female sharks of many species do not reproduce until they are 11 or 12 years old. Then, they bear only eight to 10 live young every other year. Biologists fear that heavily fished shark populations may recover their depleted numbers very slowly or not at all.
"So what!" is a common reaction to that conjecture. "The sooner they're gone, the better," says a fearful—and largely ignorant—mankind. But a fishery worth millions of dollars will be gone, too. Since 1900, Scottish spiny dogfish, harmless basking sharks and porbeagles have virtually disappeared from the North Atlantic, as have school sharks off Australia, and soupfin sharks off California. Blue sharks, threshers and angel sharks appear to be reaching the overfished stage on the Pacific coast.
Ironically, the population of great white sharks, the most renowned man-eaters, is increasing, at least along the California coast. It was off Zuma Beach, about four miles from Malibu, that two abandoned kayaks were found lashed together, one behind the other, on Jan. 27 of this year. The body of one of the kayak owners, Tamara McAllister, 24, was found the next day, floating 50 miles away. She had suffered a massive shark bite, 13 inches across, on her left thigh. The young woman didn't drown, she bled to death. The coroner said there was evidence that McAllister had been flailing the water. There were classic signs of an attack by a great white shark. McAllister's boyfriend, Roy Stoddard, a fellow UCLA graduate student, had been in the other kayak. He was never found.
John McCosker, director of the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, says, "I doubt they ever saw the shark, no more than a sea lion floating on the surface ever sees the one that kills it. To the shark's eye looking upward, the silhouette of the kayaks must have looked like normal prey, a big sleeping elephant seal.