Setting the record straight on sharks

Published 9:59 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2017

By Susan and Biff Andrews

There has been much ado about sharks recently. Much of it is “fake news,” nationally and locally. Much of it is hype — showing an 80-pound sand tiger on a beach as if it were a man-eater. Bad press.

As a former shark fisherman, it all distresses me. Time to set the record straight.


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Let’s review some basic facts:

  • Sharks are elasmobranchs; they have cartilage, not bones.
  • Sharks must swim continually to oxygenate. There are no sharks in ditches.
  • Only two or three great white sharks have ever been caught in Virginia, and they were tiny, about 200 pounds. Recent trackers show them cruising by — including 3,500-pound Mary Lee — but this is not one of their usual feeding areas.
  • Hammerheads may be fearsome looking creatures, but they are not major threats. They have tiny mouths. An eight-foot hammerhead will have the same mouth and teeth as a four-foot dusky.
  • Makos, hammerheads, great whites, sand tigers — these are not major threats. Bull sharks in shallow water will hurt you.
  • Our biggest “man-eaters” in Virginia are tiger sharks. The largest shark ever caught on hook and line in Virginia was a 1,099-pound tiger shark caught by John Thurston on his boat “Relentless.” The man was a shark-catching machine in his day.

Tigers have large jaws and beautifully curved teeth. If you plan to worry about sharks, worry about five-foot bull sharks in the surf and 10-foot tigers beyond it.

So much of the hype can be ignored. Yet there are real threats.

  • Don’t swim near fishermen or piers. The baits they are using are designed to call fish in to them, and sharks are fish. It’s even worse if you’re near shark or cobia fishermen using chum (ground-up menhaden or other fish).
  • Don’t wear flashy jewelry while swimming. The flash of a silver watch is much like the flash of a menhaden turning sideways. And don’t thrash around while swimming — like a fish in distress. Don’t swim in low light, at sunup or sundown.
  • Sharks were hunted nearly into extinction about 20 years ago. Longliners baited hundreds of hooks, brought them in and cut their fins off for the Asian markets, then released the finless sharks to sink and die slowly. A pretty grim picture.

Laws were enacted, so it’s not a problem now. Also at that time, people like me decided that killing them was wrong, and catch-and-release was far better (thank you, bassers).

So we only kept what we planned to eat.

And some shark meat is good table fare. The offshore mako is close to swordfish. Sand tiger is very mild white meat and will do to feed the multitudes, as my fishing buddy — a marine biology teacher — used to do with his classes.

The small spiny dogfish netted in the Bay most winters are shipped to England for fish and chips.

The key with big sharks is to gut and bleed them while they’re alive, as they have an open circulatory system that will allow bile to enter the meat when dead.

So … myths debunked.

They don’t swim in ditches; most are harmless; most people who get bitten bring it on themselves with jewelry and choice of time and place. And sharks aren’t evil, just trying to make a living.

They just get really bad press. Darn the media, anyway.