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ISSUE 15 ARCHIVE - SHARKIPEDIA

Richard Peirce

I recently had to compile a list of quirky shark facts for another magazine, and for inclusion in the second (revised) edition of my book ‘Sharks in British Seas’. What follows 
is a selection of which I hope may raise the occasional eyebrow or smile:

1) A Cornish fish merchant was slightly surprised when, having bought a porbeagle shark, he cut it open and found a whole pigeon inside. The pigeon’s leg ring enabled its owner to be contacted, and he was amazed when he learnt where his pigeon had landed.

2) The ‘rock salmon’ that used to be commonly on sale in British fish and
chip shops was actually shark – spiny dogfish.

3) Many
of Dublin’s street lamps were once fuelled by oil from basking sharks’ livers.

4) In 1961 the Shark Angling Club recorded 6,000 blue sharks caught off Looe in Cornwall by boats reporting to the club. In 2000 the figure had dropped to 86.

5) In Britain there has only ever been
one real recorded shark ‘attack’. Cows are statistically more dangerous to Britons than sharks.

6) There is much speculation about how the porbeagle shark got its name, and there are many theories. One is that it comes from the Cornish ‘porth’ for harbour and ‘bugel’ meaning shepherd.

7) Basking sharks may well filter more than 1,800 cubic metres of water an hour. That is roughly the equivalent
of an Olympic swimming pool.

8) From ‘Shark Attack’
by H. David Baldridge: In reply to a question concerning the Royal Navy’s wartime need for an effective shark repellent, Prime Minister Winston Churchill assured the House of Commons that “...the British Government is entirely opposed to sharks”.

9) On November 2nd 2011, Tom Huxley and his girlfriend were walking home in Aberystwyth when they smelt something decidedly fishy in the air. They investigated and found a very dead blue shark parked in the side of the road on a double yellow line. Aberystwyth was having major problems since its two traffic wardens stopped working six months earlier prior
to their functions being restarted under police control.
The shark which had obviously been dumped was gone
a couple of hours later, having presumably been removed by the council or the police.

2011 was an awful year for human deaths caused by sharks. At my last count, there were fourteen that I had been able to confirm, which is more than double the figure from previous years when the average was five or six such tragedies a year. I’ve had a lot of queries from the media wondering whether rogue sharks were to blame, global warming was changing shark behaviour, or shark eco- tourism involving chumming and feeding was causing the problems. The real enigma is why shark attacks increased when, year on year shark numbers are decreasing?

Less sharks there may be but there are more humans. Planet earth’s human population recently passed 7 billion, and every year our leisure use of the waters round our coasts increases. Surfing, diving, kayaking, swimming, snorkelling, and a host of other pursuits mean more humans in our seas every year. The great white shark is responsible for most attacks on humans (449) followed by the tiger shark (151), then the bull shark (113). The great white is a temperate water creature living in temperatures that mean humans usually wear wetsuits, and the wetsuit means that more people are spending longer in the seas than ever before.

More people spending more time in the water provides ever increasing opportunities for human and sharks to interact, and as last year showed, such interaction can often end in tragedy. No-one is to blame, sharks are apex predators doing their thing in their world, and we are visitors to it. We must visit their world with respect, taking care, and acknowledging the risks.

The question of bycatch and discard became public talking points last year after Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight programmes on Channel 4. Obviously bycatch should be avoided if possible, but it’s not always possible, so because landings of many species are forbidden they get dumped at sea – discard. This is a hugely wasteful practice. It was wonderful to see Hugh’s Fish Fight attract so much attention and his petition secured over three quarters of a million signatures. The obvious logical answer is to cease discarding and land the bycatch to stop the waste. However while I abhor the waste involved in discarding, it at least allows sharks a chance, whereas landing them means no chance at all. Let me give two examples which underline that sharks are certainly likely to benefit from discarding.

On an expedition in Qatar in 2009, I was called to look at a pile of dead whitecheek sharks which were lying in a heap on the quay in the sun. I worked out that they had been out of the water for at least 45 minutes, but probably over an hour. I sifted through them and saw the gills moving in one of the little sharks. I picked it up, took it back to the water, swam it forward and off it went. There were fifteen sharks and the outcome was that seven were revived and swam off strongly, two couldn’t be revived and were despatched, and six were dead and beyond hope. In this case the survival rate was just under 50%. My friend, Ken Watterson, who was a leading basking shark researcher on the Isle of Man in the 1980’s, remembers a shark which had been lying on the quay at Peel Harbour, and which Ken believes had been out of the water for over two hours. He observed a muscle twitching next to the shark’s eye, and began to wonder just how dead the shark was. They rolled the animal off the quay and back into the water and swum it forward. This dead shark revived and swam off, whether it survived in the long term we don’t know but at least it had a chance.

I have not been able to find any relevant research on survival rates of elasmobranchs once they have been out of the water and dry for a period, and/or appear to be dead. However, the two instances that I have recounted indicate that survival among sharks returned as bycatch might be higher than is widely recognised.

Go well, I hope to see you at LIDS.

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