Sealine Expert - Rock and Surf
Landing & Handling of Sharks
By Brett Harris
Being fishermen we so often over complicate the simple facts to fishing.
The debate will rage and anglers will always offer different views and standpoints to the handling of sharks. I don’t think it’s to fair to point fingers unless it’s obvious that the angler has caused serious harm to the fish.
The basics have been posted so many times in various threads, but in efforts to further educate its well worth posting some of the common handling suggestions again.
Sharks, unlike most other boney fish, don’t have a rigid skeleton made from bone and cartilage. They instead have a partial cartilaginous skeleton. Sharks do have vestigial ribs which function only as a protective measure, but cannot in theory support the dry mass of their body weight. Scientists generally believe that Sharks have evolved a cartilage structure to ‘lighten the load’. Cartilage is lighter than bone and because of the detached structure it allows the shark more maneuverability and allows sharks to hunt in the manner in which they need to survive. It is also important to note that although, unlike bone, cartilage continues to grow throughout a shark’s life. However if cartilage is broken, parted or cracked, again unlike bone, it has no means of repairing the damaged areas.
Sharks also have larger soft tissue organs than most fish; these highly advanced organs play both a vital and significant role in the structure (anatomy) and bodily functions (physiology) of every day life. Two of the largest organs serve vital ‘secondary’ functions and are unique to sharks. Without hard calcium bones and bone marrow the red blood cells are produced in the kidneys as well as a specialised organ called the Epigonal. White blood cells are created in the Spleen and Spiral Valve contained within the intestines. The Heart is also located in most cases along the bottom of sharks and positioned just under or directly in front of the gills. Sharks have no swim bladder, and the liver also plays a vital role in buoyancy, without which it would simply sink to the sea bed
Shark fins and tail fins are highly developed and the number, positions and functions differ from species to species. Fins serve three functions only and serve as propulsion, stability or defense. Again, the functions will differ from species to species. The attachment of various fins to the cartilaginous skeleton differs by the function the fin serves. It is a general rule that fins used for propulsion and stability have greater attachment than those used for protection.
There are loads more interesting facts about the anatomy and physiology of sharks. Their amazing evolutionary adaptations are now starting to both baffle and intrigue science to study and understand their amazing survival story. Until mans negative influence sharks were the kings of the ocean and masters of survival. Commercial exploitation accounts for millions upon millions of sharks annually and until this situation is corrected there is no doubt that many species will become extinct. The impact that sports and recreational angling is small by comparison, but still accountable.
Although the awareness for ‘catch and release’ has caused much uproar amongst recreational shark fishing it must be said that sharks are still as tough as nails and are definitely not made of crystal glass. Joe public and fellow anglers alike are quick to chastise what they see as rough or unnecessary handling of sharks before being released.
A recent topic on South Africa’s most active and largest angling web forum (http://www.sealine.co.za) debated the successful release and survival of a Ragged Tooth Shark, captured, handled, posed and photographed. The debate raged and many made bold statements assuming that the shark would never survive such an ‘ordeal’. The experienced angler, whose actions were in question, is a keen supporter of a national tag and release program and was vindicated a few short months later. His released shark was recaptured, in excellent health and over 250Km away from its original point of capture.
For over a decade the Namibian commercial recreational angling guides have literally tagged and released thousands of Bronze Whaler sharks. The data recorded by the recapture of many sharks shows that the mortality rate is not as high as we have been lead to believe.
These are some of the simple measures employed by experienced ‘catch and release’ anglers which should help ensure the survival of your Trophy catch.
The gaffing of sharks should be an absolute last option to safely land your catch. In most cases the use of a gaff can be completely avoided. When fishing off the beach there is no reason to ever gaff a shark. An experienced angler can easily handle the shark onto the beach. When fishing off rock peninsulas and ledges its important to scout the immediate area for suitable rock gullies where your catch can be landed safely. If there are no suitable spots in the immediate area it’s often possible to steer a fish towards a nearby beach where the fish can be safely handled.
When planning your strategy take note of the swell and current directions towards your landing points. Take note of the tides and water levels and the possible effect this may have when the water levels have either dropped or risen.
If having to gaff the fish is the only option then the same observations need to happen to ensure that you vantage is safe and offers a stable platform. Gaffing should only be done by an experienced angler who understands the shark’s anatomy. Sharks should only be gaffed in the dorsal fin region. A shark’s skin is incredibly tough and there is no reason to bury the gaff deeply into the fish. Experienced anglers often refer to gaffing as a dorsal ‘prick’. It’s important to use the ocean swells to assist the angler to pull the shark from the water.
Tearing the cartilage in a shark’s skeletal structure is a permanent injury and can also affect muscle function and will ultimately cause the death of the shark long after release. A basic rule of thumb is to support the handling on as many fins as possible. Pulling the full dry weight of a shark by the tail or pectoral fin only will cause damage.
As sharks vital organs are not supported by any skeleton, where possible it is always best to support 1/3 of shark’s body in water throughout the handling. Sitting on the body of a shark removed from the water will cause damage to the vital organs after release.
Sharks build up levels of ammonia in their bodies during any fight. During prolonged fights the buildup can cause severe tissue poisoning and reduce the amounts of oxygen in the body. Classic signs of fatal fatigue will cause a pinkish coloration on the belly, nose and fins of the shark. Sharks in this state should be handled quickly and returned as soon as possible. The buildup of ammonia in sharks will also have an effect for days after release; the effects would be similar to the effects of lactic acids in athletes.
A shark should spend no more than 5 min out of the water before being returned. To achieve this, an experienced angler should carry all the tools required to remove the hardware, measure the size and take his trophy photograph.
These are basic steps and should be taken by all anglers in pursuit of these amazing fish. If we all play our part and become aware of our fishing habits the survival of our catches will be increased. Nobody likes seeing the carcass of a trophy fish washed up on the beach!
Trophy (aka Brett Harris)