A couple of years ago I made a very short film explaining how the disappearance of white sharks from Gansbaai, South Africa affected the local human population, particularly the fishermen. To summarize, the white shark population had been greatly damaged due to over hunting and as a consequence the seal population exploded, which in turn led to a decrease in fish available for fishermen. The white shark was eventually protected from hunting, its population rebounded, and the seal population returned to a more manageable number.
Thousands of miles from Gansbaai, a similar story has been taking place. The characters are the same, but the order of events is different, and this time it’s happening in New England. In this case it was the over hunting of the seal that led to the disappearance of the white shark from the area, thus when the seal became protected and its population rebounded, the white sharks began showing up again to hunt this food source.
I personally find it intriguing to learn about members of nature’s food chain playing out their roles, especially when the same roles can be seen taking place in multiple locations on the globe. For me it’s a reminder of the how unique the white shark is (the only fish designed to hunt mammals). At the same time I find it disturbing to see the similarities in man’s role in these stories. It seems that every time we take matters into our own hands we end up disrupting a balance that had previously been set in place by Mother Nature. Removing ourselves from the system is what allows balance to be restored.
Since 2009 there has been a slow increase in white sharks returning to the area, undoubtedly catching on to the fact that they can once again find yummy seals. While the appearance of white sharks on beaches may alarm many, it’s actually good news, especially for the fishermen. I don’t know the magic number that constitutes a “healthy population” of seals, but I did see a lot of them when I visited Cape Cod in August and the fishermen are not too happy about it. And thus we reach the point in my blog where I inevitably become cynical about mankind. Read on if you dare.
In theory, when the population of white sharks reaches a higher number, the number of seals will in turn be reduced, hopefully reaching a nice balance over time. However, this requires man to be tolerant of an increased presence of an animal that can, albeit rarely does, kill humans. When a mistake is made and a person is bitten, or God forbid killed by a white shark, will there be a cull to reduce the numbers of sharks as is happening in Western Australia? In an interview with the Boston Globe, fisherman Kenny Kassan states, “Until somebody’s kid doesn’t come out of the water, they’re not going to do anything about it”. Ken Murray, a fisherman of Nantucket adds, “It’s just a matter of time before a shark mistakes a kayaker or a windsurfer out there for a seal,” he says. “Somebody’s going to get bit. “
Maybe someone will. Maybe someone won’t. But how we react if does happen will be very interesting. Will we accept that we are sharing the planet with other predators and accept this as an unfortunate incident, or once again take nature into our own hands? The seals will be to blame or the sharks will be to blame, but somehow we will remain faultless. I find this particularly ironic since Chatham just received the media sensation OCEARCH into their waters with open arms, who, according to an eyewitness on the research vessel, “use a massive hydraulic press to pump out a chum slick behind the boat all day long, every day at sea.” A chum slick that is carried by a current to other beaches in the Cape Cod area. Several beaches were closed due to shark sightings during this time. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, but for some reason the sharks showed up at bathing beaches far away from their normal seal hunting beaches.
I was in Chatham to learn about the white shark research taking place there, but I unexpectedly got a taste of the battle between seal and fishermen. While grabbing lunch in Chatham Harbor I witnessed a boat unloading its catch for the day. Several gray seals were in the harbor hoping to catch a dropped fish during the unloading process. Now, I don’t have anything against fishermen or fishing, but I did find myself questioning the methods that we now use to catch fish as I watched the longline boat unload its catch. For close to an hour, I watched one boat, a small boat, in a line of many boats waiting to unload, dump crate after crate of dead fish that had been taken from the sea that day. “Fishing” is not the term that came to mind as I watched this. Rape of the ocean or an attempted genocide of a species rang more true.
I’ve read several articles showcasing the comments of fishermen who feel their livelihood is being robbed from them due to the seals eating their fish. Indeed, as the ocean struggles to produce the numbers of fish it has in the past, for whatever reason(s) we want to blame, it seems fishermen are going to have a harder time making a living. But what does “making a living” mean? Should that term be equated with fishing? Should it be equated with putting food on the table for the family? I don’t believe so. Instead, I think the problem is that we as a species don’t think we should have to adapt to survive. Instead we think we should change our surroundings to match our own desires.
When a fisherman brings in 30,000 pounds of fish in one catch, I don’t believe dealing with hunger is the pressing issue on his mind. More likely the concerns are profit margins, paying a mortgage, paying for a car, paying for kids to go to school, etc. Don't get me wrong, you should be able to send your kids to school, but let's not pretend we've worked hard to adapt to the current environmental challenges we've brought upon ourselves. I’ve read several articles in which fishermen are quoted as saying they are the next species to go extinct. At a naturalist training for the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary, when it was announced fishermen were restricted to a certain area to fish due to low numbers of certain species of fish, one man declared “I’m the next species that’s going to be extinct”. I was debating whether or not to feel sorry for him when he followed up with “I only made $170,000 last year”, at which point my thought quickly changed from potential sympathy to “$#%& you.”
“We can’t catch anything because of the seals.” says Cape Cod Fisherman Ernie Eldridge. He only caught several dozen menhaden and squid that day, a far cry from the 30,000 pounds of fish he once caught daily -NY Times. Yes, that sounds like a measly catch by comparison until you stop and actually think about the numbers, I mean really stop and ingest this information. 30,000 pounds? Daily!!? Even the bad catch of several dozens is still no small amount of fish. What are we talking, 36, 48, a hundred fish? In one day? You might not be making your mortgage payments, but you’re not anywhere near in danger of going hungry or extinct.
“I guarantee those seals have caught a hell of a lot more cod than the port of Chatham has,” said John Our, another fisherman. Well, John, after having filmed the video below, I’m going to have to disagree.
You may not like with what I said in this article, and perhaps I’m wrong about some things. But I’ll put money on this; if mankind does go extinct it won’t be due to sharks, seals, or any animal other than the most dangerous animal to ever inhabit this planet. You don’t need me to tell you who I mean.
Quick shout out to Sharon Young for stating in the Boston Globe article. “We have a stewardship responsibility,” says Young. “It’s our obligation to be benevolent to those over which we have power.
Debra Canabal of Epic Diving in the WSV hoodie. Get yours!
About the Author
Skyler Thomas is the primary blog contributor, cinematographer, and lead editor at White Shark Video.