The Great American Shark Slaughter

The Great American Shark Slaughter

Endangered sharks need protecting—but the federal government works hand in hand with the fishing industry to facilitate their death.


Scanning the seafloor like a metal detector, the bull shark’s electrosensory organs are strong enough to pick up signatures measured in microvolts, even under the sand. She’s on the hunt. Suddenly, a jolt draws her attention—an injured fish, writhing in the shallows. She swoops in for the kill.

It’s a trap. A steel hook punctures her thick cheek, jerking with incredible force. It’s pulling her toward the surface. She tries to fight back, but the hook digs further. She thrashes as her fins emerge in the open air. Then come the gunshots: four in a row, point-blank. She’s gone.

Scenes like this are commonplace in the United States, which oversees one of the world’s largest recreational shark fishing industries. According to annual reports, the country typically kills more sharks for sport than for commerce. Controversially, regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries division (NOAA Fisheries) formally license anglers to target species classified as threatened and endangered by the United Nations—a “red list” that now encompasses more than a third of all sharks and rays.

Despite deep concern among ecologists and overwhelming public opposition, NOAA regulatory mechanisms remain captured by the fishing industry, and, in fact, the agency is considering proposals to strip shark protections even further. Meanwhile, journalists and investigators on the docks report widespread patterns of poaching and other crimes against wildlife at NOAA-sanctioned shark-killing contests.

Back at the dock, the action is heating up at the world’s largest fishing competition—the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR). Tournament judge and Mississippi State University marine biologist Marcus Drymon cuts a fin sample from the bullet-riddled shark and breaks the bad news: The crew is disqualified for using firearms. It’s a let-down, but they likely knew she wasn’t big enough for the prize money. As the event goes on, another team hauls in a dusky—a protected species, like the pair of sandbar sharks caught the day before. Technically, removing these species from Alabama waters was illegal, but the law can be a little lax in these settings.

In the wake of these incidents in 2014, ADSFR organizers decided to end the shark-killing spectacle by moving the animals into the catch-and-release category—that is, until 2022. Last year, rodeo-goers watched once again as dead sharks were weighed in from a new, specially commissioned hanging display at the United States Junior Chamber dock on Dauphin Island, Alabama.

According to promoters, the decision to resume killing sharks was made in close consultation with Dr. Drymon, along with head judge Sean Powers, the University of South Alabama chair of marine sciences. By compiling the tournament’s records, the two and their colleagues found in 2013 that sharks caught these days are less than half the size of those in the 1960s. Catch records of shark species in the Gulf of Mexico have declined as much as 99 percent in similar time frames. Yet, while many marine biologists raise alarm about these precipitous declines, some fisheries scientists and government grantors appear more concerned that the remaining sharks are negatively impacting sport fishing tourism.

In 2021, NOAA Fisheries granted Drymon $118,000 to research what biologists call “depredations” and sport fishers call “bite-offs”—when a predator, such as a shark, takes a piece out of a hooked animal, ruining the catch value and potentially the fishing experience. Observer records indicate that bite-offs have increased. The industry has raised the issue to a high political profile, not only in science but also on social media and even in the halls of Congress, warning of catastrophic tourism consequences. NOAA grants make the valid point that increased bite-offs may be causing undercounts in fishing records for sharks’ prey species, but in search of solutions, they literally bring the industry to the table—and one of the most popular ideas is killing sharks.

In 2022, the NOAA RESTORE Science Reef Fish Depredation initiative and several Gulf State Sea Grant programs funded a survey of 740 sport fishers on reef fish depredation. While almost half said that depredations did not impact their fishing, more than 40 percent of respondents said shark populations should be reduced or eliminated in the Gulf of Mexico. Only around 10 percent supported increasing shark numbers. The program then convened more than 20 sport fishing charter captains for a stakeholder meeting “to share their combined local ecological knowledge.” Other experts and stakeholders, like conservation groups, dive operators, and Native nations, were not included.

In April 2022, sport fishing operators were flown to Mississippi State from around the Gulf of Mexico—expenses and a $400 stipend paid—for a policy workshop. (The Nation obtained communication records through a Freedom of Information Act request.) Captains sketched out hand-drawn graphs of rocketing bite-off rates, constructed conceptual flowcharts, and graphed survey responses showing how they believe decreased shark populations could improve ecosystem health and angler satisfaction. While the fishermen estimated that dolphins bit off nearly twice as much catch, their discussion was dominated by the idea of killing sharks.

In an email sent after the workshop, Drymon expressed interest in the shark killing strategy going forward, writing to participants, “I’d like to simulate increases in shark harvest.” Three months later, the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo effectively piloted the practice, announcing a $12,000 prize for killing the biggest shark, which anglers would no longer be required to release, citing Drymon’s advice.

Speaking with The Nation, other experts excoriated this idea.

“I understand how frustrating it is.… However, intentionally driving down [shark] abundance to maybe reduce the probability of depredation events is arrogant, does not guarantee that depredation rates would decrease, and may lead to unforeseen impacts on the ecosystem,” wrote Guillermo Ortuño Crespo, PhD, of Duke Marine Lab, who researched sport fishing in Florida. “The lack of clarity on the species which may be responsible for depredation makes it clear to me that an intervention such as increasing shark harvest rates is unreasonable and, to a certain extent, derived from frustration,” he elaborated, reviewing the NOAA RESTORE workshop.

“It won’t work,” agreed Madison Stewart, a lifelong shark diver and founder of the community conservation organization Project Hiu. Sharks “identify fishermen with an easy meal.… They follow the sound of engines they recognize,” she explained, describing how the fishing industry has played a leading role in habituating sharks to humans in Florida. “If there is food and opportunity, there will be sharks.”

Even many fishermen feel similarly. Charles Witek, a legal consultant on fisheries management and Atlantic angler of 50 years, sharply criticized the approach, “Anglers…are urging fishery managers to engineer an ecosystem with unnaturally low levels of apex predators,” he said, describing the proposal as “inexcusably arrogant.”

Drymon, when inquired about the rationale of increasing shark catches, told The Nation, “The US enjoys some of the best managed and most sustainable shark fisheries in the world. The recreational catch guidelines established by NOAA Fisheries maximize harvest opportunities for anglers while ensuring sustainable productivity from the stock.”

For its part, NOAA Fisheries’ public relations office emphasized that while it funds this depredation research, it “does not operate or sponsor” shark tournaments, rather just maintains the registry. It referred policy questions to the agency’s most recent Atlantic Shark Fishery Review, in which authors deliberate over “concerning” trends of decreasing interest in shark fishing and assess strategies to encourage participation, such as decreasing minimum catch sizes, increasing daily catch limits, and carrying over quotas to subsequent years when they are not met. These proposals are currently under consideration for legal adoption and are open to public comment until August 18, 2023. NOAA also plugged the slogan, “The U.S. Atlantic Ocean has some of the best-managed and sustainable shark fisheries in the world.”

In addition to the RESTORE Science Program, NOAA also sponsored Drymon in another, larger depredation study, announced in 2021 by Florida Atlantic University and financed with just under $200,000 in federal funding. This project counted angler surveys and posts from a sport fishing Facebook group among its methods of collecting bite-off data. Its principal investigator, FAU’s Matt Ajemian, collected supplementary genetic samples from shark contests. In particular, controversy surrounding the 2022 Daymaker Memorial Tournament in Palm Beach County, Fla., attracted national media attention. While the Alabama Fishing Rodeo targeted 33 categories of wildlife, this Florida tournament was after one animal: bull sharks.

At least those were the official rules. Though organizers told the government and media that all non-target shark species were to be tagged and released for research, infiltrators recorded one at a captain’s meeting instructing participants to “take the fins [and] meat” before dumping illegal catches. He continued, warning, “You know damned well every one of these divers is going to be in the water the following day, fucking finding every single shark they can that’s sunk on the bottom. The last thing we want is a bunch of whole sharks littered all over the reef.”

While it’s impossible to monitor the activity of hundreds of boats on the water, at least one crew was filmed heeding this direction, bludgeoning a protected sandbar shark in view of a news helicopter. Another infiltrator captured a contestant, during the process of sawing out jaws for wall trophies, telling fellow competitor and NOAA adviser Robert Navarro that he had “dragged” the shark with the boat’s motor—a state crime—for two hours. Data suggest these instances are not anomalies. A 2017 social media analysis estimated that in a five-year period members of the South Florida shark fishing community posted evidence of at least 389 illegal catches.

Navarro is among the roughly half of delegates who represent the fishing industry on the NOAA Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel. By contrast, only four of the 51 advisers represent environmental interests. This body gives recommendations to the Highly Migratory Species Management Division on issuing permits for fishing billfish, tuna, and sharks. As of 2018, anyone with a registered boat and $26 can apply for an endorsement from the AHMS for fishing sharks, provided they take an online quiz. The latest records reveal that the agency issued 17,953 shark fishing endorsements in the first ten months of 2021.

And that doesn’t include commercial shark licenses, for which NOAA provides exemptions for killing protected species if they are to be used for public display or scientific research. This program is funded by an annual $10 million grant earmarked for projects “that demonstrate direct benefits to the U.S. fishing and marine aquaculture industries.”

The fishing executives on NOAA’s AHMS Advisory Panel also advise licensing decisions for tournaments. In 2017, NOAA released a web application that Navarro boasted as enabling him to register four tournaments in 10 minutes. In total, 248 competitions were registered in 2022, 33 of which targeted sharks. It takes a boat to get a shark endorsement, but even less to register a tournament. For instance, to test the system, a friend and I registered the Roberts Round Up and were approved to oversee the killing of critically endangered scalloped hammerheads. The process required submitting a brief web form and waiting two days.

The man who registered Florida’s Daymaker Memorial Tournament, and reportedly collected $5,400 in fees, is a former West Palm Beach policeman named Jason Barquin. In 20 months as an officer, Barquin underwent five criminal investigations, including two car crashes, two brutality cases, and a lethal shooting over bicycle theft. After stepping down, Barquin continued to use his badge to impersonate his former authority, a charge he was arrested for just four months before he hosted the tournament. Considering the potential for these events to facilitate illegal wildlife trafficking, a background check might seem a reasonable benchmark for a NOAA tournament registration—but the agency’s regulatory approach appears more hands-off.

In some cases, tournaments that were permitted by NOAA did not have permission from the docks where they were scheduled to take place. The 2022 Block Island Giant Shark Tournament, for instance, was canceled after local activists contacted all the island’s marinas and found that none had authorized the event. The next day, mayors of Holden Beach and Oak Island, N.C., asked organizers of the Mad Kingz Shark Week contest to postpone until October after learning of plans to bait coastal waters during peak tourist season. This competition, however, did not require NOAA permits, as it occurred within state jurisdiction.

Other contests take place with no authorization at all. When cross-checking industry-published calendars with the NOAA registry, multiple tournaments targeting Atlantic Highly Migratory Species were absent. When inquired, the AHMS Enforcement Office told The Nation it was the first it had heard of these illegal competitions.

As these events have grown, so has the counter-swell of public outcry. In 2021, director Eli Roth highlighted the controversy in a documentary called Fin, contributing to the cancellation of the Monster Shark Tournament in Newhaven, Mass.—marking an end to the world’s longest-running shark hunting competition. In the past five years, more than a dozen corporate sponsors of shark tournaments have pulled their support due to the advocacy of marine conservation groups like the Blue Planet Society.

However, most of the public remains unaware. Despite its lackadaisical enforcement, federal permitting programs help to give these tournaments an impression of stringency. For instance, it’s now illegal to land IUCN-endangered shortfin makos in the Atlantic. Yet this appears to be shifting pressure onto vulnerable thresher sharks, and NOAA still permits tournaments to target makos as long as they are released, even though they often die as a result.

Many globally endangered sharks, however, are not required to be released under NOAA regulations. For example, if I were to catch a hammerhead in federal waters during the tournament I registered, it would be my choice whether to let them go. While sport fishers who do are celebrated as conservationists, tracking research shows that great hammerheads have the highest post-release mortality rates among Atlantic coastal species, with only about half surviving a month after being hooked.

While the dominant theory among fishermen seems to be that increases in bite-offs are due to higher shark populations, official population assessments do not support this. Scientists have offered several alternative hypotheses, including a sport fishing spike, climate change, social learning, and the snapper situation.

Red snappers are highly sought by both sharks and anglers across the South Atlantic and are an important indicator of the health of species that sharks prey on. Once caught in the Gulf by the millions, snappers have dramatically declined in both number and size, a pattern observed across the ecosystem. The oldest red snapper recorded was 57 and snappers in unexploited populations can live for more than 80 years, but today 99 percent of red snappers in the Gulf are less than 15 years old. Where they once weighed in as heavy as 50 pounds, the average market size is around five.

The skewed size distribution of reef fish populations has compounding effects on species’ ability to reproduce, as smaller individuals produce exponentially fewer eggs. NOAA estimates that Gulf snappers are producing less than 20 percent of the eggs that they did historically. Yet the agency extended the federal snapper season in 2017, a move that drew lawsuits and was widely criticized as illegal. That December, NOAA redefined its minimum thresholds for reef fish, and overnight, red snapper status went from overfished to rebuilding, loosening the law. To make matters worse, in 2019 NOAA handed the authority to set snapper seasons over to state governments, creating reporting inconsistencies that many have argued are downplaying catches.

According to local reporting, experts opposed to shark tournaments concur that the status of reef fish populations is the elephant in the room in terms of observed increases in bite-offs. “You know when you’re overfishing, there’s less fish for them to eat, and [sharks] have to eat,” dive operator Luis Roman explained in an interview with Miami Local 10. Scientists working on depredation research also acknowledge confounding factors. Dr. Ajemian told the news station, “There was a major boom in recreational fishing pressure.… It’s very difficult to say how many sharks are out there.” His colleagues’ efforts to survey anglers corroborate this idea, holding that bite-offs began to take off in 2017, when snapper seasons were extended, and that they occur more often near the end of the season, when snappers are harder to find.

NOAA’s critics regard its approach to permitting shark hunting as part of a pattern of chronic corruption. Administrators come and go through a revolving door to seafood corporations. Issues like slavery are approached with incentives instead of penalties. Products it bestows with sustainability credentials have been found to come from shark-finning fleets. Whereas other wildlife matters are regulated by the Department of Interior, NOAA is incorporated under the Department of Commerce.

“Alone among all forms of wildlife management, [marine fisheries] is the one area where management measures are proposed and, for the most part, adopted, by the parties who have a vested interest in the outcome,” Witek explained, outlining the processes by which independent biologists set limits for ducks, deer, and freshwater fish. “When it comes to…saltwater fish, the management measures are decided by the recreational and commercial fishermen who sit on the regional fishery management councils.”

Crucially, NOAA also does not recognize the UN’s International Union for Conservation of Nature listings—which many leading ecologists already consider far too optimistic—instead applying its own, even more lenient, criteria, often relying heavily on industry-reported data. While IUCN research ranks more than 200 shark species as endangered or critically endangered, NOAA still does not acknowledge endangered status for a single Atlantic shark species. It lists only one shark under the Endangered Species Act in the Pacific and protects a few more in other regions with a weaker threatened status. The extraction of these sharks—such as scalloped hammerheads and oceanic whitetips—is still permitted under commercial exemptions and for sport.

PEW marine fellow and University of Miami professor Jennifer Jacquet (this author’s PhD adviser) described the proposed killing of sharks to reduce competition for fishermen as an international embarrassment. “We look scornfully on countries that use this justification for whaling or for killing dolphins, and yet we’re perfectly willing to use it on sharks,” she told The Nation, drawing a parallel to widely condemned justifications for whale permits at the International Whaling Commission.

Yet there was a time when whales were the fuel of nightmares. For most of maritime history, we imagined them as fearsome sea monsters, until our perception evolved as we began to hear their songs and understand their inner lives. For sharks, we’ve only just begun.

While we’ve only scratched the surface of the depth of shark cognition, the little research we have indicates that their intelligence rivals that of mammals and birds. Grey bamboo sharks have been shown to solve complex puzzles and remember their solutions a year later. Spotted catsharks recognize one another and behave more socially around individuals they know. Lemon sharks have individual personalities, with some more social and others introverted.

The more we learn about sharks, the more we understand that their protection is also in our own interest. As apex predators, sharks play a critical ecological role in stabilizing marine ecosystems. Emerging research even indicates that thriving shark populations can mitigate the effects of climate change.

Yet, while the imperative for sharks’ protection is clear, its implementation is complex, as sharks are often highly transient, following migration routes that long predate our imagined boundaries between national jurisdictions and territorial waters. In just one month in 2016, researchers tracked a blue shark named Machaca over an 11,000-mile transatlantic journey from the Carolina continental slope to Ría de Vigo in Portugal. All along the Atlantic coast, there are thousands of sharks like Machaca, whose international itineraries will be cut short this year in United States waters. In this dire hour for our ocean, perhaps it’s time to reflect on what we’re taking from the world.

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