Message of Tolerance
by Joseph Kays
Burgess conducted more than 900
media interviews last year during what Time magazine called the "Summer
of the Shark," but to him none was more important than the one
he did on the Today show hours before going off to lobby on Capitol
As director of the International Shark Attack File based at the Florida
Museum of Natural History, Burgess was in great demand following a
horrific shark attack on 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast off a Florida
Panhandle beach and subsequent attacks throughout the summer.
the Arbogast attack, so many reporters from The New York Times,
CNN and other media outlets sought Burgess’ comments while he was
attending a conference at Penn State University that the university’s
public information office assigned him a staff member to coordinate
all the interviews.
And in each of those interviews, Burgess repeated the same message:
Humans are wiping out sharks, not the other way around.
He dispelled the myth
that shark attacks are on the rise, noting that the number of attacks
has gone up only slightly each year, despite the fact that the number
of recreational beach swimmers has gone up dramatically.
And he reminded readers and viewers that humans are in sharks’ environment,
not the other way around.
Fortunately for Burgess, and for the sharks, all of these messages were
fresh in the minds of the members of Congress he visited after appearing
on the Today show on July 10.
Burgess was in Washington to push for long-term funding of new shark
research initiatives to complement the Commercial Shark Fishery Observer
Program (CSFOP), a cooperative effort of the Florida Museum of Natural
History, located on the University of Florida campus, and the fishers
of the United States Atlantic commercial shark fishery that is funded
with about $170,000 annually by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Every year since 1994, three biologists working for CSFOP have spent
48 days each on commercial fishing vessels out of North Carolina and
Florida gathering data about the number and kind of sharks being caught,
either as the primary catch or as a by-catch of other commercial species,
“Basically, it’s a scientific review of how many critters are out there,”
Burgess says, noting that the program has collected biological data
on 34 species and more than 40,000 individual sharks.
“Sharks are difficult to manage,” Burgess says. “It takes a long time
for them to reach sexual maturity, and they have only eight to 10 young
at a time, so they are easy to knock down and they take a long time
The purpose of the CSFOP is to gather the raw data needed to determine
the maximum sustainable yield of sharks that can be fished before the
Thanks, in part, to the efforts of Burgess and his colleagues, Congress
passed and President Bush signed a bill providing $1.5 million annually
to fund new programs. The Florida Museum of Natural History at UF is
joined in the program by the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in California,
the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and the Virginia Institute
of Marine Science.
“All the attention on sharks last summer very much contributed to passage
of that bill,” Burgess says. “Everybody we talked to listened.”
Particularly helpful, Burgess says, were U.S. Representatives C.W. “Bill”
Young and Dan Miller of Florida, Frank Wolfe of Virginia and Duke Cunningham
and Sam Farr of California.
Burgess says the additional funding will allow researchers to conduct
a “fishing independent” sampling program, meaning they will capture
and gather data about sharks during the closed seasons.
“The CSFOP is starting to give us an idea of what sharks are doing during
the fishing seasons,” Burgess says, “but for the other six or seven
months a year we really don’t know what’s happening.”
Burgess says scientists will lease commercial boats and equipment that
is idle during the off-season, so they will have complete access to
the catch and will be able to conduct more biological testing than they
can when observing as part of a commercial operation.
The safer, more secure conditions will also allow researchers to take
graduate students to sea as part of their training, Burgess says, ensuring
the “future of the science.”
The ultimate goal, he says, is to more specifically classify the more
than 40 different species of sharks so the most effective management
plans can be developed.
Explosive growth in shark fishing over the last 30 years has created
this need to carefully monitor the shark population.
“There was a collective rush of testosterone in the sport fishing community
after the movie Jaws came out in the mid-1970s,” Burgess says.
“The mindset was that all you needed was a big hook and a piece of meat
and you could get yourself a ferocious shark to brag about.”
The situation for sharks got even worse, he says, in the mid-1980s when
commercial fishers began going after shark for their fins. Shark fin
soup is a delicacy in the Orient, where it is believed to be an aphrodisiac.
“It’s the most expensive seafood product we’ve got,” Burgess says. “There’s
four fins per critter, you don’t have to refrigerate them and you can
get $25 a pound.”
Initially, some sharks were “finned” and their carcasses thrown back
into the ocean, but as the market for shark steaks grew, fishers began
using the whole fish.
“All indications were that the shark population was declining precipitously,
and shark scientists started yelling and screaming that it was going
to crash,” Burgess says, so CSFOP was born.
Since the shark catch is headed, gutted and finned at sea, port sampling
is not a viable means of quantifying the catch because the carcasses
are difficult, if not impossible, to identify to species. In addition,
by-catch in the fishery is discarded at sea or used as bait and thus
cannot be quantified at the dock.
started as a voluntary program, but as regulations on shark fishing
became tougher, the size of the fleet declined and fewer captains
were willing to allow observers aboard their boats.
Beginning this year, observers will choose from boats randomly selected
by the National Marine Fisheries Service to participate in the program.
“There is a natural mistrust of government regulation,” Burgess
says. “Hard-working fishers feel entitled to whatever gain they
can get, but what some don’t realize is that if they overfish the
sharks, they will have to spend even more time and effort just to
get the same amount.”
Observers usually spend two to 10 days at a time at sea on 30- to
50-foot boats where there is often not even a bunk or a bathroom.
“This is tough duty and it requires very skilled and seasoned biologists,”
Observer Kevin Johns
poses with a thresher shark
(photo courtesy of CSFOP)
The CSFOP’s “ground-truthing”
of the at-sea catch provides an invaluable source of information for
fishers and regulators, Burgess says. This accurate data, gathered by
an unbiased team of academic observers, serves as a common starting
point for management discussions during the regulatory process.
Burgess is a practical man who recognizes that while, as a scientist,
he may be most interested in biological data about sharks, it is attacks
that pique the public’s interest. So he uses the International Shark
Attack File (ISAF) as a way to create “crossover interest” from shark
attacks to shark fishery management.
“As a scientific tool, the ISAF helps us to better understand where,
when and why attacks occur so we can give advice on ways to avoid them,”
Burgess says, “but its other great value is as a bully pulpit. It gives
us an opportunity to talk about more important things than shark attacks.”
With an average of 19 million hits a month on the Florida Museum of
Natural History’s sharks Web page, the ISAF has come a long way since
it was established by the U.S. Navy in 1958 as part of an effort to
develop effective shark repellents for sailors.
During its first 30 years, most of the information in the file was culled
from newspaper reports. The file moved around to various research institutions,
including the Smithsonian, the Mote Marine Laboratory and the University
of Rhode Island before settling at the University of Florida in 1988.
The file is jointly administered by the Florida Museum of Natural History
and the American Elasmobranch Society, a non-profit organization that
seeks to advance the scientific study of living and fossil sharks, skates,
rays and chimaeras.
Since coming to the Florida Museum of Natural History, the ISAF has
undergone tremendous growth, thanks in part to computerization and the
emergence of the Internet as a communications tool. More than 3,300
individual investigations are currently housed in the ISAF, covering
the period from the mid-1500s to the present.
Through the cooperation of the organization’s many worldwide members,
the file is growing significantly, Burgess says, with large databases
from Australia, California, Hawaii and South Africa now integrated into
“I was tired of seeing every article about sharks be the Jaws
image,” Burgess says, “so we have tried to turn the ISAF into a clearinghouse
for information on sharks. If we don’t put out good, solid information,
people will pick up all the god-awful information that’s out there.”
Director, International Shark Attack File
Related web site:
most common sharks caught by commercial fisheries
The Atlantic sharpnose
shark (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae) is a small shark that attains an
average length of about three feet and average weight of about eight
The sharpnose has
a long snout and labial folds around its mouth. The Atlantic sharpnose
shark can be brown, olive-gray or blue-gray turning to white on the
underside. Adults may have some
white spots and smaller individuals tend to have black-edged dorsal
and caudal fins.
This shark consumes
shrimp, mollusks and small fishes.
This small shark is
found in the coastal waters of South Carolina, Florida and the Gulf
of Mexico, where it is a year-round resident.
A large, stocky shark,
rarely more than six feet in length, the blacktip shark (Carcharhinus
limbatus) is easy to identify by its large first dorsal fin and rather
long pectoral fins that are usually tipped in black. The blacktip's
color may be grey, grey-brown or bluish grey with a conspicuous white
band on the flanks over the pectoral fins. The snout is moderately long
and somewhat pointed, and the eyes are small.
feed at various depths, when at the surface their large triangular first
dorsal fin may stick out of the water, a well-recognized sign to the
average person. Blacktips eat a wide variety of fishes of small to moderate
size. The blacktip can put on quite a show when feeding near the surface,
launching itself vertically through masses of schooling fishes and out
of the water.
Blacktip sharks range
all around the world in tropical and warm temperate waters, mostly over
the shallower parts of the continental and insular shelves. They can
also be found in close inshore waters, in muddy bays, in the mangroves
and even in the mouths of rivers.
Very few attacks on people
by this shark have ever been recorded. They form a large part of the commercial
shark catch and are popular with sport fishers. Like many other shark
species, they are under pressure and it is likely their numbers have diminished.
dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) occurs along continental coastlines
in tropical and temperate waters from Nova Scotia to Cuba, including
the northern Gulf of Mexico, and from Nicaragua to southern Brazil in
the western Atlantic and from southern California to the Gulf of California
in the eastern Pacific.
The dusky shark occurs
along continental shorelines where it ranges from shallow inshore waters
to the outer reaches of the continental shelf and adjacent oceanic waters.
Although generally a bottom feeder, it can be found from the surface
to a depth of 400 meters.
This species is known
to be highly migratory in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific,
moving north during the summer months and south in the winter.
It is characterized
by a snout that is slightly shorter than or as long as the width of
the mouth and a first dorsal fin originating over the rear tip of moderately
large pectoral fins.
A large dusky shark
can attain a length of more than 12 feet, although average size and
weight are 10 feet and 350 to 395 pounds.
The dusky shark preys
on a wide array of fish and invertebrates, including herring, eels,
mullet, groupers, grunts, croakers, bluefish, mackerel, tunas, various
flatfish, a variety of sharks, skates and rays, crabs, octopuses, squid
The dusky shark is
commonly harvested in the western Atlantic where its fins are sold overseas
for shark-fin soup base. It is also regularly taken on commercial longlines
as a by-catch in the swordfish/tuna fishery.
Although it has been
associated with few attacks, the dusky shark is considered potentially
harmful, due in large part to its large size and tendency to inhabit
shallow coastal waters.
On a global scale,
dusky shark populations are considered at-risk. An ongoing decline in
numbers indicated by low catch rates in the western North Atlantic has
prompted a ban on the harvesting of dusky sharks by U.S. commercial
fishers. -- Craig Knickle
The sandbar shark
(Carcharhinus plumbeus) is the most abundant species of large shark
in the Western Atlantic.
The sandbar shark
is a bottom-dwelling, shallow coastal water species that prefers waters
on continental shelves, oceanic banks and island terraces, although
it is also commonly found in harbors, estuaries and at the mouths of
bays and rivers.
Like many sharks of
its genus, the sandbar shark undergoes seasonal migrations influenced
mainly by temperature, although it is believed that ocean currents also
play a significant role. In the western North Atlantic, adult sandbars
move as far north as Cape Cod during the warmer summer months and return
to the south at the onset of the cooler weather.
The sandbar shark’s
most distinguishing characteristic is its taller-than-average first
dorsal fin. It has a short, bluntly rounded snout that is shorter than
the width of the mouth.
The sandbar is a moderately
large shark that can reach more than seven feet in length but more typically
grows to six feet. The average weight is about 120 pounds.
The sandbar shark
is an opportunistic bottom-feeder that preys on relatively small fishes,
mollusks and crustaceans. Common food items include various bony fishes,
eels, skates, rays, dogfish, octopus, squid, bivalves, shrimp and crabs.
The sandbar shark feeds throughout the day but becomes more active at
The sandbar shark
plays an important role in the commercial shark fishery along the eastern
United States. In fact, because of its numbers, moderate size, palatable
meat and high fin-to-carcass ratio, it is a primary targeted species.
Due to its preference
for smaller prey and its tendency to avoid beaches and the surface,
the sandbar shark poses little threat to humans. --Craig Knickle
The tiger shark (Galeocerdo
cuvieri) is found throughout the world's temperate and tropical waters,
with the exception of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a wide-ranging species
that is at home both in the open ocean and in shallow coastal waters.
This shark has a notable
tolerance for many different kinds of marine habitat but generally prefers
murky waters in coastal areas. It is commonly found in river estuaries,
harbors and other inlets where runoff from the land may attract a high
number of prey items. It is often seen at the surface and has been reported
to depths of 350 meters.
One of the most easily
recognized sharks, the tiger gets its name from dark black spots and
vertical bars that run the length of the body. The tiger shark has a
robust head with large eyes and a very blunt snout. The mouth itself
is large. The broad first dorsal fin originates behind the pectoral
fins, and a much smaller second dorsal fin initiates behind the curved
One of the largest
sharks, the tiger shark commonly reaches a length of 10-14 feet and
a weight of between 850 and 1,400 pounds. The largest specimens are
believed to attain a length of more than 17 feet and weigh more than
The tiger shark has
a reputation as an animal that will eat almost anything, including sea
turtles, rays, other sharks, bony fishes, sea birds, dolphins, squid,
various crustaceans and carrion. The tiger shark's highly serrated teeth
combined with the saw-like action from shaking the head back and forth
allows it to tear chunks from much larger marine animals.
Although not targeted
directly by the commercial fishery in the U.S., the tiger shark is routinely
harvested for its fins and flesh.
The tiger shark is
second only to the white shark in number of reported attacks on humans.
Its large size and voraciousness make it a formidable predator in the
ocean. -- Craig Knickle
the Footsteps of The Shark Lady
fascinated Alexia Morgan since she was a young girl and first
read about the exploits of Eugenia Clark, the pioneering marine
biologist known as the “Shark Lady.”
Clark was founding
director of Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory and has authored
three books and more than 160 articles about sharks, including
a dozen for National Geographic.
about sharks really appealed to me,” Morgan says, “and the fact
that she was a female scientist.”
Today, Morgan is blazing her own trail in shark science
as the first female observer on
Commercial Shark Fishery Observer Program.
Burgess & Alexia Morgan
the shark-fishing seasons, which run from January to April and July
to October, Morgan and two other observers employed by the program spend
up to 10 grueling days at a time on commercial fishing boats.
A typical shark-fishing
boat trails five to 15 miles of 1,200-pound monofilmant line with up
to 1,500 baited hooks along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf
of Mexico and then spends up to six hours reeling in the line, which
can carry hundreds of sharks, dead and alive.
Morgan’s job is to
gather as much data as she can in the few seconds it takes the fishers
to turn each shark, many still alive, into seafood.
“I try not to get
in their way because that will only irritate them,” says Morgan, who
holds a master’s degree in marine biology. “I’ve got a form on which
I record species, length and reproductive information. I just try to
get it all down while they’re reeling in the line. There will be plenty
of time later to process the information.”
After the catch has
been taken aboard the boat, Morgan makes additional observations, measuring
the sex organs of the male sharks and counting the pups in the uterus
of pregnant females.
Morgan considers herself
lucky if she has a bunk on the boat, and even luckier if the toilet
facilities are more than a bucket.
“After a few days,
I’m ready to come back in,” she says.
Given her commitment
to shark science, Morgan says watching the harvest of so many sharks
can be difficult, but she adds that her exposure to the commercial fishing
industry has tempered her views.
“My viewpoints have
changed, and working with the fishers will probably change them more,”
she says. “I started out being a real leftist, thinking all shark fishing
should end, but now I believe you can harvest fish from the ocean sustainably.”