Sharks are Taking the Bite Out of North Carolina Tuna Catches
Bob McNally 06.26.17
Fishing off the Outer Banks has been great this year, especially with big hauls of tuna. But boat captains are losing up to 20 fish a day to the opportunistic predators.
“You can’t even get a fish to the boat,” said Jack Graham, first mate on the Fintastic, a charter boat based at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. “You get a bite and look back and there’s just a big cloud of blood.”
Sharks are taking the catch along with thousands of dollars in fishing gear, he said.
Captains could bring in their boats with the tuna limit by midmorning if not for sharks gobbling the catch, said Carey Foster, mate on the Smoker, also docked at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.
“The last couple of weeks, they’ve been horrible,” he said.
State fishing summaries include reports of sharks preying almost exclusively on tuna catches.
“This is the highest bite rate I’ve seen in 27 years,” said Brian Melott, a port agent for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. “These bites ain’t small either.”
Melott surveys anglers and collects catch measurements and other data as part of an ongoing fisheries census.
The two primary species attacking are dusky and sandbar sharks, Graham said. Dusky sharks grow up to 14 feet long and are known for their powerful jaws. Sandbar sharks can reach about 8 feet.
Despite sharks’ apparent abundance, state and federal agencies still classify larger species such as dusky and sandbar sharks as overfished.
Dusky sharks cannot be harvested and sandbar shark catches are limited to a small number for research, said Holly White, a biologist with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
Regulating agencies encouraged fishermen to harvest sharks in the 1980s, according to a history by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The predator declined drastically until the 1990s, when the National Marine Fisheries Service came up with strict management plans.
Sharks do not reproduce rapidly and still need recovery time, said Sara Mirabilio, fisheries specialist for the North Carolina Sea Grant program. The large number seen by anglers is encouraging.
“Even though it’s a hassle for fishermen, it’s actually a good sign for the populations of these two shark species, both of which crashed hard in the ’80s and ’90s,” she said.
So charter boats continue to catch a large number of tuna, and sharks continue to take their share.
“The fishing is really good, some of the best I’ve seen,” Graham said. “But it’s hard getting them to the boat.”