In 1964 the ownership of Ocean Leather changed hands. Armed with a degree in political science that he had recently acquired at Wisconsin, John Dreher, the son of one of the new proprietors, traveled through Mexico and Central America encouraging shark fishing and showing veteran fishermen how to catch more sharks—an enterprise that he found particularly challenging, since, at the outset, he knew almost nothing about it. By picking up know-how in one locale and passing it on to humble fishermen in the next—and more importantly, by simply letting the suppliers get to know their buyer—he worked wonders. Dreher tends to pooh-pooh the effect his junket had on the shark-hide industry, but his opinion can be largely disregarded because he is not only a very modest man but exceptionally cautious in anything he says. (Dreher is the kind of man who, if he had been aboard the Ark with Noah, would have hesitated to say, "It certainly has been raining," for fear of offending someone.) In any case, in the four years since Dreher's odyssey south of the border, shark-hide production has gone up and up. Ocean Leather now processes 65,000 hides a year, and shoe manufacturers such as Nettleton, Florsheim and Allen-Edmonds are now marketing shark-leather shoes not only in Texas but in many big cities across the land. Even with the sharp increase in production, the market is far from becoming saturated.
In order to keep the supply of shark hides coming, Ocean Leather now handles shark meat and fins for its suppliers virtually at cost and sometimes at a loss. It was largely because various components of the shark now have a steady cash value that the transplanted New Englander, Les Rayen, became convinced that shark fishing off Florida might once again be profitable, provided he could put down enough well-baited hooks often enough to catch sharks in quantity.
Today a single tiger shark of fair size, say 12 feet, can bring Rayen more than $30. If it is in perfect condition the hide is worth a base price of $12.50 plus a bonus of 50%, because tiger shark is top-quality hide. At 7� a pound, Rayen will get back at least $10 for the meat, and for the fins (which are relatively small on a tiger) probably another $3. While all this sounds very profitable, no one should think of giving up a steady job at the local putty factory tomorrow with a mind to making a financial killing on Florida sharks. As Rayen well knows, many things can go wrong before the shark in the sea is converted into cash. In one of those breezy, wet spells of weather that Florida occasionally has, water may leak into Les Rayen's storage house, dampening salted hides stacked for shipment. The fresh water creates sour spots on the hides, and an $18 hide so spoiled may bring less than $5. When Rayen has laid a line of 100 hooks within half a mile of shore, often the first prize brought to the boat will be a male lemon shark. If so, Rayen prays that the male lemon does not throw the hook. When a hooked lemon does get loose, instead of simply taking it on the lam as any wild creature should, it most often swims along the line taking a bite out of every other shark hooked on it. Then, having ruined the other hides as if in spite, the lemon for some dumb reason usually will find a bait that has not yet been taken, swallow it hook and all, thus surrendering itself for the second time. Why does a lemon do that? No one knows.
On a fair day Rayen may string 400 baited hooks out on 4,800 feet of quarter-inch galvanized cable. The next day, when he would ordinarily go out and haul in the catch, the wind may swing to the northeast and howl from that direction for four or five days. By the time he can get safely back out through the shifty sands of the inlet, Rayen knows the catch on the line will be too long dead to have any value, but he must retrieve his gear since the main cable, the ?-inch leaders, the bronze snap shackles and the big Mustad hooks from Norway are worth more than $1,000. Anyone caring to know what it is like to haul 4,800 feet of line and find it burdened with overripe sharks can approximate the experience by opening 100 cans of sardines and letting them sit for a fortnight in a warm room.
One of the easiest ways to gauge the problems of the sharking game is to go aboard Les Rayen's boat, close your eyes and merely listen to the changes in his vocabulary as the day wears on. Rayen ordinarily is an unruffled, circumspect individual, most genteel in manner and speech. He meets most of his setbacks and surprises on land with one simple expletive: "Oh, for heaven's sake." When he is out on his boat, as the first large tiger shark is hauled to the surface, in similar fashion he simply exclaims, "Oh, for heaven's sake. This shark has tail-wrapped one leader and is foul-hooked on another." As tiger after tiger is hauled up, flailing and writhing, some of them clamping onto the bow of the boat with their jaws, others fouling two and three leaders and refusing to succumb although half a dozen .45 slugs are put in their brains, Rayen's language gets increasingly saltier and hotter. By the weary end of the day, his strongest expletives, if transmitted short wave, would burn holes in the face of the moon. It is altogether a vigorous effort for a shaky profit, but certainly a benefit to many communities that are only faintly aware that such an industry exists.
If you, gentle reader, are impressed by the Florida shark problem, here is what you can do to help. Whenever you order sharkfin soup in a Chinese restaurant, insist on Florida fins. (The inscrutable Chinese themselves recognize more than 200 different grades of sharks fins, so they are hardly in a position to object if you are picky and choosy.) Conversely, when dining in Europe, be most tolerant of fish entrees. If the Dover sole you order tastes more like a flank cut off a brontosaur, possibly it is Florida shark. Wash it down with a good wine, for you will be keeping pressure on the shark. To really help the cause, of course, you can buy a handsome pair of shark-leather shoes ($45.00 and up). If that seems steep, then buy a belt ($11.50 and up). Remember, by so doing, the life you save may be your own.