GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 23, 2010

New shark problem hits in Gulf of Maine

Ebb & Flow

Small dogfish aren't the only sharks adversely affecting East Coast fishermen.

Bert Jongerden, general manager of the Portland, Maine Fish Exchange, recently contacted Ebb & Flow about a new plague — porbeagle sharks (Lamna nasus) that have been lately costing offshore Gulf of Maine gillnet fishermen thousands of dollars in lost fish and gear. This is happening at a time when fish prices are often cheap, gear,fuel and unemployment are high and groundfishermen have become the endangered species.

The porbeagle problem "...is unbelievable," said Capt. Tim Maguro of Portland, who runs that port's 47-foot gillnetter Shannon Christine with Maine residents Bobby Johnson of Long Island, Devin Bain of Arundel and John Woodbury of Portland.

Once nearly fished out, especially by longlining in the 1960s, "the latest international scientific assessment of the porbeagle shark for the Atlantic Ocean determined that the species was 'overfished,' which means the overall population of this highly-migratory pelagic shark species is not considered healthy or sustainable ...," reports NOAA spokesperson Monica Allen.

Allen said the porbeagle, "...is not listed under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)."

"The European Union has submitted a proposal to have porbeagle listed under Appendix 2 of CITES," Allen said. "This would not be a ban on fishing of porbeagle. Listing under Appendix 2 ... would mean that international trade of the species would become regulated ..."

"Lamna nasus meat is high-quality and high-value, particularly in the European Union. Its large fins are valuable," according to online porbeagle literature posted in 2006.

Today, back home, "The market for porbeagles is very bad," reports Lawence Horten, the sword and tuna marketing manager for the John Nagle Co. in Boston. This generations-old company today buys the incidental catches of porbeagles landed by its sword boats.

The National Marine Fisheries Service's Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan limits the capped 223 direct and 285 incidental porbeagle shark fishing permit holders to land no more than 1.7 metric tons of this species annually.

New entrants "... would need to buy a shark limited-access permit from a fisherman who has one, directed or incidental," Allen explained. "The fisherman must meet boat size restrictions, so the permit for one size vessel transfers to a comparable-sized vessel," she explained.

How widespread is the porbeagle distribution in the Gulf of Maine?

"On our last trip, we covered about 300 miles (in the Gulf of Maine), and the porbeagles were everywhere we went, day after day; I'm telling you, they are everywhere," said Capt. Steve Hodgkins of Windham, Maine. He helps crew the 44-foot Jennifer K., also out of Portland, with Johnny Emerton of Portland and Matt Libby of Sanford, Maine.

Maguro does a lot of his gillnetting 40 to 50 miles offshore and beyond.

At those distances, he said, "It's not a matter of will you get a porbeagle in your nets, but how many you will get."

"The number of porbeagles around has picked up the last three years. Now it's porbeagles yearround — from skinny ones to fat ones to long ones to speckled ones," Maguro said. "They are all of the same species from pups to 6- to 7-foot-long, 200-, 300-pounders. They have come back with a vengeance.".

Hodgkins said he's even caught big numbers of porbeagles just 20 miles from shore.

"You could go right here off Portland and drop (longline) hooks and catch as many as you wanted," he said. "Last year was bad; this winter has been twice as bad.

"I've been gillnetting 30 years," Hodgkins said. "Years ago, on a trip that you hauled your gear five-to-eight times, you might land 15-to-30 porbeagles. Now you can land that number in a day. A friend of mine just hauled 50 nets offshore and got 54 porbeagles with a 200-pound average."

These sharks have negatively impacted the gillnet fishermen in at least three ways.

"We are catching fish every day (during a trip), and we often can't get them to the boat," said Hodgkins. As he and his crew haul up their bottom gillnets, the porbeagles will "... cloud up right under the boat. They'll sit there and eat 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of fish a day from us (by yanking the fish out of the upcoming nets). You can see them coming up from 60 fathoms down (on the color sounding machine)," he said.

Besides losing valuable cod, pollock and hake to the porbeagles, "They will rip the hell out of the gear. They take the upcoming gear (while going after the incoming fish). You can feel it," Hodgkins said.

"The blue dogs (blue sharks) will pierce through the nets on the bottom, but the porbeagles will hit it and start spinning until they get tail-wrapped," Maguro explained. "One shark will often spin about a 120-foot-long section of a 300-foot net into a cable lay. The sharks also bite the gear in half."

During his past five day long trips, the porbeagles have typically destroyed seven-to-eight of his 300-by-12 foot high gillnets, each worth about $300 new.

In addition to pilfering fish and destroying gear, "How many fish is that wolf pack driving away? Many grounds where there were fish now have no fish because of the porbeagles. All those sharks do is swim and eat," Maguro said.

"We can't even bring the sharks in to sell them," he said. "Ninety percent of the (offshore gillnet) fleet doesn't have a shark permit. There used to be a decent market for sharks. You could get $1-to-$2 a pound for them.

"They (the porbeagles) are rebuilt pretty well. They are here to stay," Maguro said.

When told of the porbeagle situation in the Gulf of Maine, Allen said, "Our shark scientist said, 'Fishermen may be seeing a migration of porbeagles to feeding areas'."

Hodgkins said that raises another key question:

"It's not only us (gillnet fishermen) getting killed, but what are the porbeagles doing to the Gulf of Maine fish populations?"

Peter K. Prybot writes weekly for the Times about the fishing industry and related issues.