While fishing for red snapper on a bright, calm day last fall, Johnny Silva, a commercial angler of Fort Pierce, Fla, hooked into a pesky 10-foot nurse shark. As Silva was leaning over the side of his boat trying to haul the lummox out of the water, his left hand slipped and the shark seized it. Although a good bit is known today about sharks, no one can surely say what any one of them will do in a given situation. Rather than biting down hard on Johnny Silva's hand as a nurse shark would customarily do on such a soft morsel, this shark merely held Silva's hand firmly in its mouth, sucking on it lovingly as a child is wont to do with a lollipop. Whenever Silva tried to withdraw his hand, the shark would roll an eye at him and increase the pressure of its jaws. "Each time it clamped down hard," Silva relates, "it felt like a 300-pound man was standing on my hand wearing golf shoes. After 20 minutes trying to get it back, I began wondering what sort of work I could take up as a one-armed man."
Luckily two rival fishermen out of Vero Beach happened by and shouted across the water to ask Silva if he were in trouble. "If a shark swallowing your hand is a problem," Silva shouted back, "then I've got a problem." Like most commercial fishermen of the area, the Vero Beach anglers had a gun aboard—a .38 magnum revolver—explicitly for killing sharks. The simplest way to kill a shark is to put as many shots as necessary into its small brain, but the Vero Beach men realized that, in this case, any magnum slug fired into the shark's brain would also pass through Silva's hand. As a desperate alternative, Silva suggested that his rescuers fire into the shark's rearmost gill slit, on the theory that such a cruel surprise just might make the beast open its mouth. The Vero Beach men did as Silva suggested, The shark opened its mouth. Silva quickly pulled out his hand, which was lightly damaged but had all fingers still functioning.
While Johnny Silva probably is the only man who has had any shark hold his hand in such an intimate manner for 20 minutes, on the east coast of Florida in the past few years a number of people, both residents and paying guests, have had more contact with sharks than they care for. From Vero Beach south to Fort Lauderdale, on docks and in bars and in the privacy of their shanties and palaces all manner of fishermen are objecting to the depredations of the shark. The gill-netter lays his net in the shallows half a mile offshore, hoping for Spanish mackerel. A gang of sharks slams into the net and in a trice a thousand pounds of fish are gone and so is a good bit of the net. The scuba diver spearing fish for pleasure or profit on the second reef beyond the 10-fathom line finds the big hammerhead and tiger shark frequently about him, swiping his catch, nudging him and butting the wind out of him. Waving both his good hands, Johnny Silva, the near-victim of the nurse shark, complains, "You find a good snapper hole, and when you get the first fish on you feel the line go down, down, down. A shark has the fish, and you might as well move on, because you won't get another snapper there."
A charter-boat man, Bud Partin, reports, "We had a beautiful, big bull dolphin on. Then came the shark. We brought in little more than the dolphin head. It weighed 29 pounds." In similar fashion the commercial trollers complain that too often now the shark is taking the kingfish (worth 30� a pound) off their hooks, leaving them only worthless heads. In the Palm Beach area, where billfishing is a way of life, when a gallant sailfish is brought to boat, customarily it is revived and released so it might live to fight another day. But now, too often, the shark is there, waiting for the half-exhausted prize. Frank Ardine, the grand master of the charter skippers in the Palm Beach area, insists that 10 years ago his fishing parties rarely lost more than one sailfish a month to sharks. Today, although his clients are bringing only half as many sailfish to boat, the sharks are getting six a month.
Too often today the shark is right off the beach among the bathers—jostling, bullying and occasionally biting some luckless soul. Because a shark doesn't always know its own mind is no reason for a bather to be scatterbrained. If fins are showing, a swimmer should remain beached. If he is already in the water he should head for shore, making as little disturbance as possible. A hotel waitress (whom we shall call Janice Anonymous so that she does not lose her job) says bluntly, "I saw fins in the surf right from the hotel. I have not been in the water for a week."
Her mother, Rachel Anonymous, who works at a beachfront snack shop, says, "I saw three fins. The lifeguard said they were porpoises, but no porpoise swims like a shark." Of all the people from all walks of life who are up against the shark on Florida's east coast, the commercial fishermen are probably getting the worst of it, economically speaking. However, the surfer, the latest breed of water lover to proliferate in Florida, should have the most concern for the future. He is the tantalizing new intruder in the shark's world. The surfer dangles his edible appendages in the roiled water of the break in a tempting way. Already he is being bitten occasionally and too often is getting the bum's rush. Heaven help him if any number of sharks ever find out that he is indeed an easy mark.
Since tourism is a considerable part of the Florida east coast's prosperity, the shark today is affecting the livelihood of many people who seldom, if ever, go fishing, bathing, diving or surfing. Each time he opens his big mouth, the shark, in effect, is giving the area a bad press. As a consequence, opinion in the area is divided as to what should be done. There are those who believe action should be taken now, even if the consequent publicity affects the tourist trade. At the other extreme, there are many who insist that the shark problem has already been exaggerated and the less action taken—the less done to attract attention—the less everyone will suffer.
Three years ago, addressing the annual convention of the Underwater Society of America, Dr. Donald de Sylva of Miami's Institute of Marine Science warned that the growing shark threat in southern Florida should no longer be swept under the rug. It is human nature, of course, to ignore local prophets, particularly one preaching the painful truth. Dr. de Sylva's counsel was largely disregarded until last April, when a small pack of sharks drove the point home. On April 20th, while 10-year-old Steven Samples was swimming in 5� feet of water 25 feet off Palm Beach Shores, he was attacked by at least three sharks. He almost lost an arm and a leg and was bitten savagely also in the buttocks and back. In his medical report the surgeon who sewed young Samples back together said, "Literally hundreds and hundreds of sutures were utilized." Since Samples was the third person to be seriously attacked in a half-mile stretch of beach in six months, a portion of the citizenry was aroused.
Two weeks after the Samples attack a panel of shark experts met in Palm Beach at the invitation of Congressman Paul Rogers, who represents a large stretch of the affected waterfront. At the meeting there were not only local prophets of merit such as Dr. de Sylva but outsiders even more experienced, notably Captain David Baldridge of the U.S. Navy, Dr. Perry Gilbert, chairman of the national shark panel, and Stewart Springer, who is the sharkiest man in the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. These experts recommended—with no dissent among them—that the Florida east coast communities should encourage fishing for sharks—specifically commercial fishing—to reduce the hazard and depredation. It was the explicit opinion of Stewart Springer that, by fishing for sharks, a sports group called the Palm Beach Sharkers, headed by a meticulous local naturalist, Morris Vorenberg, had been giving the area about $100,000 worth of free protection a year.
Short of getting direct word from God, the local governments in the area had received about the best advice possible. Most of them straightway proceeded to do almost nothing. Indeed, a few seemed to lean over backward to see that nothing was done. Heeding the advice of the experts, in two nights of fishing half a dozen anglers pulled 50 sharks out of the surf off Riviera Beach, just north of where Steven Samples was nearly killed. The following morning Riviera Beach was posted "No fishing."