SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
December 09, 1968
The zooming shark population off Florida's east coast has the Chambers of Commerce climbing palm trees. As the beasts continue to swarm closer to the beaches and open their big mouths it makes for a bad press and a shortage of tourists
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December 09, 1968

The Sharks Are Moving In

The zooming shark population off Florida's east coast has the Chambers of Commerce climbing palm trees. As the beasts continue to swarm closer to the beaches and open their big mouths it makes for a bad press and a shortage of tourists

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Such nitty-witty attempts to shy away from the problem are not new on the Florida east coast. For the past seven years the resort community of Fort Lauderdale By The Sea has had an ordinance that reads: "WHEREAS, fishing for, exhibition of, or landing of sharks, barracuda or sting ray on the beaches of the Town of Fort Lauderdale By The Sea or the ocean waterways abutting said beaches is deterrent to enjoyment of said beaches by the tourists, visitors and residents alike, and conveys the impression that said beaches are shark infested.... It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to fish for shark, barracuda or sting ray, or exhibit shark, barracuda or sting ray, or land shark, barracuda or sting ray on the beaches of the Town of Fort Lauderdale By The Sea...."

Also heeding the advice of the experts, the Buccaneer Yacht Club of Palm Beach Shores, the North Palm Beach Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Lake Worth Junior Chamber of Commerce held shark tournaments, on the theory that such affairs would get rid of some sharks and, more important, keep the public aware of the problem until some government—county, state or federal—took stronger action. The Jaycees' effort was deplored on television by Paul Thompson, the executive director of the Palm Beach County Development Board. "I think that the tournament was well intentioned," Thompson told TV viewers, "but I don't believe that we should hang our dirty linen out in the national front street."

A committee was organized in the Palm Beach area to try to get a commercial shark industry established. The committee got nowhere. Today, oozing displeasure at the reluctance of local governments and industry to collaborate, John Rybovich, the noted West Palm Beach boatbuilder who headed the committee, says, "The attitude of most people in the tourist industry is to whitewash the situation. The only thing that would be convincing now is for someone to get killed."

Because shark liver was found to be virtually a mother lode of vitamin A, back in the 1930s and '40s a shark-fishing industry prospered at Salerno on the Florida east coast. Although the vitamin content varied greatly even from one liver to another from the same shark species, in most livers it far exceeded the potency of the sticky, ucky cod-liver oil that children gagged down. Most shark-liver oil was used to fortify poultry feed, but a good bit was marketed in capsules for humans. In its best 10 years, the Salerno operation took more than 100,000 sharks from Florida east coast waters. In 1950, after means were found to synthesize vitamin A cheaply, the Salerno operation closed—at just about the time, ironically, that the boating boom began and many Americans were taking up water-skiing, spearfishing and other sports that carried them farther into the shark's realm.

Anglers who have been working Florida waters for 20 years or more fairly well agree that, after the Salerno operation stopped, the depredations of sharks progressively increased. If local government and industry of the area seem reluctant to act on such evidence—and on the advice of experts—it is in the main because they do not know enough about the shark to realize that he is an exceptional opponent. In wars against other predators—bug or bird or beast—human experts usually in time can find a weakness in the rival and hit it hard. Such a weakness perhaps will be found in the shark, but it will take some doing. We humans are complicated fly-by-nights who were born yesterday and very likely will be gone early tomorrow. Enchanted by our own brief appearance on the stage, we fail to appreciate the convincing talents of a durable performer like the shark—an ancient simpleton of slick modern design. Though blessed with little brains, the shark was programmed to endure, come what might. Since he has never been much of a specialist, his range cannot be destroyed. It is almost impossible to starve him out, for he is very catholic in his tastes—in a pinch, any flesh will do. Off the Florida coast, when there are freakish upwellings of cold water, bony fishes die by the thousands, but not the shark. He profits from the loss.

When too much sweet water spills into the sea from Florida's drainage system, frequently the balance of nature is upset, and, again, the shark usually profits. Experts who have examined the nervous systems of various species to try to understand their ways have found that the shark is not wired up, so to speak, like other fish. To judge by countless instances of kooky behavior, the brain of a shark does not always seem to know, or care, what its mouth or its stomach is up to. There are instances of sharks taking a second hook after they had been caught and gutted and thrown back into the sea presumably dead. One lemon shark in Florida, after being skinned and thrown back as dead, swam away and was caught by another angler.

When the Salerno fishery killed off 100,000 sharks two decades ago, it was actually ridding the area of at least half again that number. A fair part of any large shark catch consists of females bearing young that at birth are thick-skinned, sharp-toothed and ready to make their way. A few cold, biological facts about the sand-tiger shark, a ragged-tooth species that preys on game fish in the shallows, should convince any doubter that, even before birth, that species, at least, has more sang froid than the late John Dillinger. Although a female sand tiger produces a good number of eggs that hatch internally in a dual uterine system, so far as is known she never litters more than two offspring. The first shark pup hatched in each uterus eats all his younger brothers and sisters, and then, when there is nothing left to nibble on except mother, he heads out into the world. Stewart Springer, one of the experts on the emergency panel held in Palm Beach, worked at the old Salerno shark fishery as a manager, experimenter and troubleshooter. Although sand-tiger pups usually do not emerge from their mothers until they are more than three feet in length, while Springer was reaching into the oviduct of a sand tiger in the course of research one day he was bitten by an unborn sand tiger only nine inches long.

While Palm Beach County, the most prosperous section of the coast, is doing little about the problem, in the waters farther north, around Fort Pierce, pressure is once again being put on the shark. Although the liver is no longer marketable, the shark is being hunted profitably to satisfy the peculiar demands of three rather disparate cultures: Texans, south central Europeans and Chinese. This winter anyone who dangles a fishing line or a foot unmolested in the waters between Vero Beach and Jupiter Inlet should be grateful that there are smart-dressing Texans who, knowing good leather when they see it, have been insisting for some years that their Sunday best shoes be made out of shark hide. The hides of sharks caught off Florida are now being used to cover the feet of Texans—and an increasing number of other Americans—who want a shoe that is both dressy and almost unscuffable. The meat of Florida sharks is now being shipped frozen in bulk to Europe, where it subsequently shows up on menus under various assumed names. The Chinese have never been able to get enough shark fins for use in soup. Some of the fins taken off Florida sharks travel farther than any other delicacy in the world. All of the Florida fins are shipped to Newark. In Newark some are transshipped 12,000 miles to Hong Kong, where they are processed and shipped back for use in the finest Oriental restaurants in San Francisco and New York.

There is a shark industry in Florida today primarily because, about four years ago, a New Englander named Leslie Rayen and a North Jerseyite named John Dreher quite independently decided to forsake the professions they were equipped for to make a profit out of sharks. Until 1964, 40-year-old Les Rayen had spent some of his life messing around in boats and a larger part serving in the Army's Special Forces in various tropical and subtropical climes. When he finally left the Army, Rayen found the winters in Massachusetts, his homeland, unbearable. He packed himself and his family off to Florida, entertaining the idea that he could make a good living catching fish—which any Florida commercial fisherman will tell you is almost an impossible dream. On the waterfront, Rayen ran across two Cuban refugees who were supplementing their odd jobs by venturing far offshore in a junky boat to catch sharks, just as they had back home before Castro. The Cubans shipped their shark hides and fins to an outfit called Ocean Leather Corporation in Newark. The Cubans had no idea what became of the hides and fins. They merely knew that, after shipping a certain quantity, in time they received a certain number of d�lares.

The Ocean Leather Corporation had been muddling along in Newark since the 1920s. Sun-cured shark skin has been used since ancient days as decorative material and as an abrasive, but its value beyond that was almost nil until the original proprietors of Ocean Leather found a way to remove the hard denticles from the hide and render it into a soft, workable leather. Shoes of shark hide were first test-marketed m the Fort Worth area in 1926. For the next 40 years, almost all the shoes, belts and briefcases made of shark hide—about 98% of the total production—were sold in Texas. Fabricators did not bother trying other markets because Ocean Leather could not supply enough leather even to satisfy Texas. Prior to 1964 Ocean Leather was processing about 16,000 shark hides annually—enough to cover the feet of about 35,000 Texans of size 14 or smaller. The supply came in the main from Mexico and Cuba and other countries ringing the Caribbean. Ocean Leather never really had a sure idea when the next bundle of hides would show up from anywhere. It was, in a word, too much of a que ser� operation.

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