Encountering Sharks While Fishing

The old saying, “a good shark is a dead shark” stems from a generation of Jaws-infused fear, a reaction to the perceived threat of sharks, and the notion that sharks are stealing our food – so they deserve our malice.

This approach was acceptable through the ‘80s and ‘90s purely because there was a lack of understanding about what sharks are, their role in the ocean, how they affect the fish, and, therefore, how they affect us: the fishers.

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I grew up in this era. I saw Jaws. I fished. I feared sharks. And yeah, I didn’t like them. But being a surfer, I couldn’t be confidently malicious towards a shark while sitting atop a piece of foam. Unlike a fisher, safe in their boat, I felt vulnerable as a surfer, and this made me more open to learning about sharks and shark behaviour.

As a budding marine biologist, I began to learn what each creature did in the ocean, and over time I ended up studying every single large species of shark in our oceans, including the infamous great white shark. My education allowed me to migrate away from the typical fear and malice response and realise this fundamental scientific fact: more sharks mean healthier, more stable, and more diverse fish populations.

I understand that there may be some scepticism towards that statement. I mean, we all know sharks eat fish, right? Fewer sharks mean fewer fish get eaten, which leaves more for us.

Well, unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. In short, predation pressure forces prey species to be fit and healthy. Predation, or ‘top-down’ pressure, keeps prey abundance in check. And this flows down through each trophic level (big fish to small), forming the food chain. Removing a piece of this chain allows a brief reprieve from this top-down pressure, enabling a population boom – which sounds good but, unfortunately, is short-lived because the prey of that ballooning population eventually runs out due to over-predation – a world out of balance.

While there is a bit there to follow, you should know that I teach this to school kids around the country, and they get it; they understand the value of sharks. But before you think I’m comparing you to a 10-year-old, let me clarify that the big difference between you and a 10-year-old is that they were taught about sharks through smiley, cool, and relatable sharks, like in the movie Finding Nemo. Not Jaws. And for that reason, they don’t have an inbuilt response mechanism towards sharks, fear-related hatred, and thus they are open to the fact that sharks are ultimately helping us catch more fish.

My goal with this article is to try and convert your perception, built through decades, into a realisation that a good shark is NOT a dead shark. You don’t have to like them as a movie critic, but as a fisher, it’s in your best interest to recognise that they are your friend. They enable you to not only have the opportunity to catch more fish, but also healthier and more diverse species of fish.

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Now, I mention you have the ‘opportunity’ to catch more fish because, at the end of the day, sharks are pretty good at it too, and yes, they sometimes deserve the Tax Man moniker. But next time you get pissed off at that “bastard bronzie”, that “menacing mako”, that “belligerent blue”, or even that “wicked white” (someone stop me), and you think you need to reach for that baseball bat, try to think of what your kids would say.

We learn from our kids about many of our bad habits, from the McDonald’s Make it Click campaign for seatbelts to drink driving, smoking, and speeding. If our kids tell us what we’re doing is wrong, we usually take notice.

When I ask schools of hundreds of kids to put their hands up if they like sharks, never have I seen a single kid who doesn’t.

For the rest of this article, I want to illustrate where and how you will likely run into a shark this summer and how to best avoid reaching for a baseball bat – FYI, super illegal with a great white shark: Wildlife Act 1953 – and instead how you can use an educated understanding to prosper, not only with fish in the bin now, but also fish in the future through the preservation of apex predators and a balanced eco-system.

Jigging the pins for Kingies:

Targeting hard-fighting fish means more time spent ringing the dinner bell and an increased likelihood of a mako or bronzie taxing you. In summer, the kingies move closer to the coast, and so do the bronzies. However, bronze whalers are also in a mating and pupping phase of their lifecycle during this time and have other things on their mind, which releases some of that zonal pressure on our catch at the offshore pins.

Locations where ‘getting sharked’ becomes common are good places to avoid. Searching for new locations not only reduces the tax opportunity but also prevents us from teaching the sharks that they can habituate to our boats for an easy meal. Sharks are not everywhere but instead aggregate at the best supermarkets, which we also target. They will further aggregate at supermarkets where fish are tied to the end of a rod – Pauanui reef in the Coromandel is a good example. So, to reduce the animosity built up towards these sharks – a $20 jig at a time – try to move on from areas where ‘getting sharked’ becomes common. It may prove harder to catch fish as you find new spots, but your landing rate and wallet will be far better off.

Mako sharks are highly migratory species, and while they do aggregate in loose patches around ideal hunting grounds, they generally move on quickly and don’t habituate like bronze whalers. Therefore, a tax from a mako is a rarer encounter than that of a habituated bronzie.

Setting longlines:

When you lay 25 baited hooks at a time, you are far more likely to catch fish but also increase the volume of those dinner bells. To avoid this and still harvest a good feed, it is best to set longlines out on the sand flats, not only to avoid entanglement on reef structure and reduce bycatch of unwanted fish species but also so that you place your hooks in more of a desert environment. Because that sounds off-putting for your catch rate, it’s important to register the abundance difference between sharks and your target fish species. Think of it like the African savannahs: massive grasslands with prey species like buffalo are spread far and wide, with the odd lion scattered throughout. Lions tend to centre their efforts around an aggregation device, like a watering hole. So too will a shark. They will prowl reefs and other significant underwater features, which makes them a much rarer occurrence out on the flats.

Set Netting:

Set nets are 100% deadly to anything that goes in them, so it is super important to only use them in areas where you are very unlikely to overlap with unwanted bycatch. It’s especially critical to avoid areas where endangered species reside. This is common sense for species like the maui dolphin, for which set net bans have been established. However, recently there has been an apparent uptick in the presence of juvenile great white sharks in some regions, especially Tauranga Harbour’s Bowentown area.

Last summer, the persistent presence of multiple set nets along the Bowentown beach was flagged by locals as not only a risk to endangered and protected sharks, but also to us as water users. Not only is it against the MPI code of practice to set nets near people due to the risk of entanglement, but a net full of fish is also a major attractant to sharks. Drawing sharks into areas where we play with food on their minds is not in our best interests.

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Unfortunately, two juvenile great whites were killed in set nets due to the overlap of the net locations and the shark’s presence, but also because best practice was not followed.

If your preferred method of fishing is set netting, do not leave nets unattended for long periods or set them when sea conditions deteriorate, which may hinder their retrieval. If you do, you will have no ability to release any unintended species. Remember, it’s a legal requirement to have named floats at either end of your net, and it cannot be longer than 60m or set within 60m of another net. Please refer to MPI’s website for additional rules and regulations (as you should before using any fishing method).

Like a longline, you shouldn’t set your net over reef structure; it will get snagged. If left on the bottom it will act as a ‘ghost net’, continuing to kill sea life for hundreds of years as the nylon refuses to break down.

Classic boat-and-berley fishing:

A berley scent trail lures in the fish, along a breadcrumb-like trail, straight to our hook. They work great for most of our target species, but they also provide a simple and efficient sit-and-wait strategy for a shark – ready to pounce on a restrained fish on a line. Bronzies are particularly great at this, but so too is the blue shark, which has nothing better to do all day than sit in that trail. Blues are generally not much of a visual predator; they’re more of a slow and simple nibbler (often your prop due to the sacrificial zinc blocks, which stop your engine from rusting but also emit a tantalising electrical signal that sharks just have to bite). If you start getting sharks in the berley trail, then it’s best to just move somewhere else as the fish will have likely gone off the bite.

Game fishing:

The good news here is that game fishing tournaments for a long time now have not rewarded the capture of sharks. Instead, sharks are released, or gamefish are tagged and released, which not only keeps the pointy end of mako sharks away from your hands, but it can also generate some incredibly valuable scientific information on migration pathways and growth rates.

If you do ever catch a mako on a lure, it is best practice to try and get the shark to the boat. This may sound counterintuitive from the ‘Shark Man’, but it is super important. DO NOT panic and cut the line in fear of losing your spool. If you do, not only will you 100% lose an expensive lure, but worse, it will mean that shark has to drag around a massive amount of nylon. With any shark caught on your line, the best thing to do is to cut the nylon as close as you can to the hook. The hook will rust out, and the shark can remain in the water while you’re safe in your boat. And, with a typical marlin lure, you can generally grab the expensive lure section from up on the leader and just sacrifice a hook.

For the sake of sharks, us, and our fishing interests, we should all be able to agree that their life is worth a lot more than that mere hook.

Be safe on the water this summer, wear a life jacket, take two forms of communication, get a Coastguard membership, and do a Day Skipper course. It’s another scientific fact that boating accidents are several thousand times more likely to happen to us in NZ than an adverse interaction with a shark.

December 2022 - Amber Jones
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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