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Vol 46 | Num 6 | Jun 9, 2021

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Article by Capt. Mark Sampson

“Shark Depredation” is a term that many folks are probably not familiar with, but one that’s being used more and more by fishermen and fisheries management people around the world. If you’re an ocean fisherman and have never put those words together in a sentence, don’t worry - you will! Shark depredation describes an event where a commercial or recreational fisherman’s catch is eaten or mutilated by one or more sharks, and while most anglers who have spent time fishing waters inhabited by sharks will have a story or two to tell about losing a fish off their line, there are some specific places along our coast where depredation has become a daily and absolutely overwhelming event. Fortunately such losses are few and far between for Delmarva fishermen, but in the future, whether directly or indirectly, all of us could end up having our fishing activities affected by depredation.

Shark Depredation

There is no dispute that shark depredation in both the recreational and commercial fisheries is occurring and has most likely increased in the last decade. Anglers from Maine to Florida and all of the Gulf states have stories to tell about sharks being so problematic that it’s common for them to lose a part or all of their catch to sharks or, at the very least, be harassed so much by sharks that they are not able to fish how or where they would prefer. Besides the hooked fish that anglers are losing from their lines, sharks are preying upon fish that anglers release.

Fisherman’s frustrations with shark depredation are escalating and certainly understandable. Since the late 90’s we’ve transitioned from virtually unrestricted commercial and recreational shark fishing to a very complex and often confusing suite of rules, regulations, seasons, prohibited species, gear restrictions, and permitting requirements. U.S. fishermen must now comply with some of the most comprehensive shark regulations in the world and as a result, the directed commercial shark fishery has all but collapsed and recreational shark fishing has become primarily a catch-and-release fishery.

Reports of shark depredation are rampant. At times Outer Banks anglers are losing more tuna to sharks than they actually land and if snapper and grouper aren’t stolen from Florida fishermen’s lines as they crank them up, the ones they release are eaten as they attempt to swim back to the safety of the reef. The conservation advantages of traditional catch-and-release fishing for vulnerable and critically important gamefish such as tuna, tarpon, sailfish, and permit are being minimized by this upsurge of shark depredation. Even spear fishermen are reporting personal safety concerns from sharks that are becoming more abundant and aggressive in their attempts to steal the fish that have been speared.

For many anglers, losing a fish or two to sharks has gone from an occasional event that might add a little extra excitement to their fishing day to a situation whereby they are so overwhelmed by sharks they have no alternative but to abandon their fishing efforts. While part time recreational fishermen might find this imposition enough to ruin their hopes for an enjoyable time on the water that ends with a meal or two of fresh fish, captains and guides in the fore-hire fishing industry are seeing it tap directly into their annual revenues. Depredation has spawned a new level of anger and frustration in fishermen that has prompted some to choose other ways to spend their free time and money rather than pursuing fish they feel they have little chance of successfully landing, thus threatening stability within the corresponding fishing industry.

What's The Problem?

At first glance it might seem obvious that the cause of the depredation problem is simply that there are now more and “too many” sharks, and that conclusion could indeed prove-out to be correct. However, considering the extreme complexity of the marine ecosystem, the answer to “why is this happening?” might not be as simple as an overabundance of sharks, and before a proper and effective action can be determined that will help mitigate depredation it will be critical to correctly identify what the underlying circumstances are that are creating this dilemma.

Things to Consider

White sharks congregating off Massachusetts.

In the last decade white sharks have been observed off the coast of Massachusetts in increasing and unprecedented numbers. From their own observations, coastal residents of that state might be inclined to conclude that white shark populations have exploded. However, in reality it’s pretty much agreed that the abundance of white sharks is not the direct result of an increase in the population of the species, but from sharks being drawn to the area to feed on the increased number of seals that have taken up residence along that part of the coast. Rather than being distributed over a wider area of the ocean the white sharks are aggregating along the Massachusetts coast because they’ve become conditioned to recognize it as the place to be for a consistent and easy meal during certain months of the year.

Dusky Sharks Off North Carolina

Dusky sharks are high on the NMFS’s Prohibited Species List because, according to stock assessments, their numbers are so critically low that an elevated level of conservation is needed to bring their population back to sustainable levels. However, apparently duskies are one of the primary culprits in the depredation that’s going on off the Outer Banks. Are the stock assessments now wrong because dusky shark populations have rebounded so much and so quickly? Or, like the white sharks off Massachusetts, is the word out among the remaining duskies that the Outer Banks is “the” place to be in the spring for an easy meal?

South Florida Turmoil

It might be said that south Florida is the epicenter of shark depredation. Over some reefs and wrecks bottom fishermen are finding it virtually impossible to successfully land a snapper or grouper, more and more tarpon anglers are experiencing the horror of having their prize fish attacked before they can get it to the boat or ripped to shreds after it’s released, and an increasing number of bluewater anglers are complaining about depredation on sailfish, tuna, wahoo and other pelagics. Off Key West an entire reef has been closed to fishing of any kind because sharks were taking such a heavy toll on permit, snapper and other fish that were being caught and released during their important spawning season. Anglers claim that the primary culprits are bull, blacktip, lemon, and sandbar sharks. Could it be that all of these species have become overpopulated?

Shark’s Nature

The weak, the injured, and the dying have always been fair game for sharks, and most folks recognize this as an important and necessary part of keeping balance within the marine ecosystem. Sharks are both the ocean’s janitors and apex predators, and whether it be from the sight, sound, smell, or vibrations given off by their intended meal, they are uniquely designed to quickly and efficiently capture, and consume prey that they recognize as being in distress. Obviously, a hooked fish struggling on the line as it works against the drag of the reel is exactly what a shark was designed to identify as prey. And as fishermen we must recognize that every fish we engage will transition from “healthy” to “distressed” the moment we set the hook. The fish are just doing what they do until we put them in peril by putting a bait or lure in front of them, and the sharks are just doing what million years of evolution have taught them to do in response.

While there’s no “villain” here, it can be argued that if we fishermen didn’t make the fish act erratically by hooking them - they wouldn’t end up being eaten by the sharks. Then again, aside from maybe becoming more efficient at it, we fishermen are also just doing what we’ve always done. Could the catalis of the depredation problem be that because there are so many more fishermen out there than ever before there are a lot more opportunities for sharks to learn where the easy meals come from?

More Questions

We’ve all seen how with so much of their natural environment being lost to urban development, deer, bear, and other wildlife are increasingly losing the fear of man and showing up in our own backyards. Is there now so much boating, diving, and fishing activity going on that sharks are becoming so accustomed to being around us that they’re losing their natural wariness and actually becoming conditioned to look to us for a source of food? Could they be putting off their natural fear of man because their natural prey is diminishing? Or have sharks just finally wised up to the fact that man’s fishing operations are a source of easy meal?

Effects on Fishery Regulations

Since fishery managers must take into account all sources of mortality when determining catch limits, shark depredation must be factored in. Therefore, if too many tuna, snapper, billfish, sea bass or whatever are being nailed by sharks, regulations could be adjusted to compensate for lost fish even in areas where the depredation isn’t occurring. How would you like to have your sea bass or tuna limits cut in half because sharks are eating so many of them off North Carolina? So, indirectly, this issue could affect anglers who never even encounter sharks.


Right now there are a whole lot more questions than there are answers about shark depredation and what, if anything, can be done about it. Fishery people are certainly aware of the situation and some studies are in the works and others being considered. The knee-jerk reaction by some folks has been that we need to start culling shark populations by liberalizing regulations, right now there is so much unknown about what’s really going on that such action would not be rational or likely to happen. The only thing certain about the answer to shark depredation is that it’s sure to be controversial!

Coastal Fisherman Merch
CF Merch



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