DEAD SHARKS VS ALIVE
There's two sides to every coin. No matter what issue or subject that’s out there, there will always be another opinion on the matter. When I started the lodge with my father, there were differences on the direction it should be taken. The lodge's initial concept was based around Alaska's fishing and hunting crowd, but I wasn’t 100% passionate about it and more in creating a photography destination. Ultimately, I deferred to his background at its inception.
When thing that hadn’t occurred to me at the start is how abundant the sharks were in relation to the lodge. And being plentiful, there was a time period that sport fishing for them was the hot ticket item in the state of Alaska. Coming from a family of fisherman, it wasn’t a stretch for me to also offer this to my clients. I watched charter boats from west to southeast go from salmon and halibut charter to shark only fishing, with the fishing density occurring in my area. There were many sharks caught and slung up for a photo. I even jumped on the bandwagon harvesting a handful of sharks. But when I realized that clients were quick to pose with a dead shark with no interest to keep meat I quickly discarded the idea of continuing for the lodge. I watched as the slaughter of sharks continued over the next couple of years until it all dried up. Charters stopped offering this trip because they simply could not find any. Even though I didn’t have the interest I have now with swimming with sharks, my wife and I tried to raise the alarm, only falling on deaf ears. Luckily the population is on a comeback, but nowhere near the numbers before the shark culling. There are many reasons for the dramatic drop in their population, including commercial and bycatch, but I was able to witness the sport fishing first hand. I still get calls for shark fishing, but try to reason with them if given the chance. Although I like to fish (although never again for sharks), I always try to educate folks on the need for keeping a healthy population of every animal. Overfishing is my main concern because of the overall negative image that scares the general public. Sport fisherman will say that you can catch and release them, but I've seen mortality rates first hand. Although its possible for them to survive, studies in warmer climites have shown that a shark carring a steel leader or hook often dies. Commercial fisherman will see them as a pest that eats or damages valuable salmon and wrecks gear, sometimes killing them.
It reminds me of something I read on an email from a client. “You can’t save everything cute, eat everything that tastes good, and kill everything you're afraid of and expect a working ecosystem to come out of it." - Flip Nicklin
Here is an excerpt from a citizen science journal I helped author...
"Ravencroft lodge, situated close to Port Fidalgo is run by Boone and Gina Hodgin. They offer eco-tourism trips that include encounters with the Salmon sharks. In addition, they run a citizen science project that focuses on abundance and identification of these sharks when they are in the area. Gina Hodgin is a biologist and since the lodge is right in one of the prime areas where the sharks traditionally congregate, she has worked on various projects. Over the years, she has compiled a photo library of the individual sharks that migrate to the area. Next to her photographs the lodge also relies on their clients to allow usage of their images in order to establish a more complete data base of the salmon shark in Port Fidalgo. With these images, it can be determined which individuals are in the area and whether the same sharks make the migration to this part of Alaska year after year. One of the larger canyon walls lies within sight of the lodge thus allowing a unique opportunity to study and learn from numerous interactions at close range.
On an annual basis 6 trips with an average of 6 divers who come specifically for sharks are ran. Each diver spends an average of 7 days trying to see sharks. The conflict between eco-tourism, citizen science and fishing and the economic impact.
Salmon sharks have been at the heart of a conflict between consumptive fisheries and eco-tourism coupled with citizen science. In the years between 2001 and 2011 a variety of recreational fishing charters offered shark specific fishing trips. These fishing charters operated out of Valdez, Wittier, Seward, Homer and Cordova and were in direct conflict with the shark eco-tourism in the area. Although they claim that most of the sharks were tagged and released, most pictures on their websites show landed and killed sharks.
During the year 2008, a singular image was published on the Fish Alaska Magazine's website that showcased a kayak fisherman with a dead salmon shark draped across his kayak. This single image was the catalyst to the large-scale shark harvesting that followed. Ravencroft lodge, along with numerous other lodges and charters were inundated with phone calls from potential fishing clients who wanted to catch a shark. It was big business for fishing related companies. Charters and lodges from Valdez, Cordova, Seward, Whittier, Homer, parts of SE Alaska and British Columbia were quickly changing from Salmon and Halibut fishing to strictly shark fishing. Over the course of two years, charters could catch 6 sharks a day over a 3-month fishing season with most sharks caught in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009. Fishing Charter boats from these ports switched from historical salmon and halibut recreational fishing, to only salmon shark fishing charters during these years.
Despite being in the eco-tourism market, Ravencroft lodge joined this recreational fishery “Bonanza”, allowing clients to catch and harvest sharks. During that time catching a salmon shark was extremely easy but when clients refused to take the shark meat with them back home, Ravencroft lodge opted out of continuing to offer this fishing experience and had only harvested a handful of sharks.
As this intense fishery continued and reports came in of charters operators continually bringing in their limit of 6 sharks per day, every day, Ravencroft Lodge decided to raise the alarm given the large number of sharks taken in a short amount of time. They started to communicate with the state of Alaska fish and wildlife division to let them know that they were in a unique position to watch the harvest and its impact on the exact spot the sharks migrated to. However, they had no response that indicated that it was seen as an alarming reduction in the population and any action was to be taken.
In addition to the recreational shark fishing, the commercial fishing industry was also adding to the dramatic drop in population. There has been no shark directed commercial fishery since 1997, except for dogfish in Alaska since 1997. However, Salmon sharks are caught accidentally. This impact was seen less often since they did not return to port with their catch. Amy Carrol, a writer and publication specialist with the division of commercial fisheries at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game summed up the attitude with the following quote, “Salmon Sharks are often brought up in commercial salmon fisheries as by-catch and are considered a nuisance and thus discarded”. (Alaska Fish and Wildlife News 2007). It is hard to assess the exact impact of this by catch but the commercial interest is high in the area for the huge volume of salmon runs that migrate to the area. Commercial fisherman will often refer to these sharks as a pest that destroys nets and gear if accidentally caught. Commercial fishing does not allow them to kill these sharks, but never the less, dead sharks are found regularly floating in areas where commercial fishing has occurred.
The combined impact of the recreational fishery, the commercial by-catch and the speed with which the drop in the shark population happened created rapid and drastic changes. In places where previously hundreds of sharks were seen, few returned. By 2009, the height of the recreational shark fishery was over and charter operators and lodges changed back to salmon and halibut fishing. Clients were becoming increasingly upset spending large amounts of dollar on trips to a remote part of Prince William Sound in search of sharks, only to find them gone.
For Ravencroft lodge the drop in the number of sharks had a big impact on their revenue stream and in the years 2009 and 2010 they did not see the sharks return. In 2011 they saw only a handful of sharks. But each year after that, a few more sharks would return, slowly increasing the number of sightings. In 2016, more than 30 sharks were seen and it restarted a photographic catalog of known sharks returning to the area. However, this a still a very low number compared to hundreds of sharks that use to inhabit this area.
Per IUCN, Salmon Sharks are labeled as LEAST CONCERNED, stating “The Salmon Shark occurs in the eastern and western North Pacific and its population appears to be stable and at relatively high levels of abundance. Currently there is no directed fishery in the Northeast Pacific, apart from a small sport fishery for the species in Alaska. Bycatch in the Northeast and Eastern Central Pacific appears to be at low levels and is not increasing at this point-in-time”
A research paper by L.B. Hulbert, stated that he found an abundant population of salmon sharks from 1998-2001 (Hulbert et al 2005). Nearly all research conducted on salmon sharks was taken before 2000-2007, during the peak of a healthy shark population. Scientists and biologists will use these studies as a baseline when talking about this shark species. But current population rates are heavily skewed with old data and must be updated with not only with new scientific research and recreational fishing data, but also commercial fishing data regarding the number of sharks that they discard.
Conclusion: Coupled with the recreation fishing interest that still exists and the high dollar value connected to it, and the commercial fishing seine boats that frequent the area, these sharks are still in recovery mode. But it is a fragile recovery that could be jeopardized easily if one or two charter boats, over a few days, decided to take the old practice of fishing for these sharks. With that another negative impact of shark eco-tourism could happen. Ravencroft lodge, being the only commercial operator that promotes non-consumptive shark tourism for the Salmon sharks approached the city of Valdez to help make the case for the value of a live returning shark versus the one-time dollar value of harvested shark. However, they quickly found out that they merely generated a renewed interest in catching and stringing up a shark for a photo opportunity.
It is likely that the scale and value of recreational fishing for these sharks could outperform the current eco-tourism value and with that the fate of this shark continue to hang in the balance. On one hand the low number of sharks will most likely prevent any large scale recreational fishing. However, should the population rebound to the numbers pre-2001, a risk exists that history may repeat itself.
It is encouraging that the global dive industry is increasingly interested in this shark species and thus underlines the case for non-consumptive shark eco-tourism. However, to it desirable that additional and updated research should be allocated to determine the population's health and long term sustainable use."