Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Australia's Grey Nurse Sharks: NSW anglers under new restrictions to protect sharks

In New South Wales, Australia, sportfisherman who fish the waters off Fish Rock and Green Island, in the southeast corner of the continent, west of Melbourne, are having to adapt to new fishing techniques and restrictions imposed by the NSW Primary Industries Ministry. The rules were put in place to help protect the grey nurse shark, also known as the sand tiger shark. Congregating in large numbers, these sharks were being accidentally hooked because of the baiting techniques being used.

The fishermen were using bait and wire line, or trace, to fish right off the island's rocky shoreline. Unfortunately, with grey nurse sharks being the typically bottom-feeding scavengers that they are, a baited hook became a tempting target.

“Recently published research suggests that grey nurse sharks are being accidentally hooked in the vicinity of Fish Rock and supports the requirement for increased protection at this site," said Steve Whan, NSW Primary Industries Minister. "Other research being conducted by Industry & Investment NSW at Fish Rock has shown that grey nurse sharks will readily take a range of commonly used baits suggesting the existing rules are unlikely to protect the species from accidental hooking.”

A benign but threatening-looking shark
Grey nurse sharks are not considered a particularly dangerous shark, even though they can grow to be up to 14 feet in length and carry a rather awesome mouthful of long, dagger-like teeth designed for snagging and holding on to fish that they catch with a quick side-to-side snap of their heads. Because of that array of dental armament combined with a rather mild temperament, they have become a popular shark in public aquariums.

When I was a dive team leader at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, I had the opportunity to spend time with three or four grey nurse sharks (called sand tigers in the U.S.).
They were very curious sharks and so, if I was filming, I would have a safety diver behind me with a short pole to shoo away any shark that got a bit too curious. Other times, divers would be in the shark exhibit to clean and another diver would always be watching his or her dive buddy's back. It was a prudent precaution, but not because the sand tigers looked at any of us as a potential meal. It was more a case of curiosity and a bit of a territorial attitude that they exhibited. In fact, it was always a point of concern with the staff, when introducing a new shark or other animal into the exhibit, that the sand tigers might pick on the new arrival. Like West Side Story, the gang of "sharks" in Long Beach were protecting their turf.

I always enjoyed diving with the Aquarium's sand tiger/grey nurse sharks, in addition to the blacktip reef sharks and zebra sharks also on display. But with the sand tigers, you always maintained a careful eye on where they were.

Incremental but important steps
Back in New South Wales, sportfishermen are still allowed to fish at Green Island and Fish Rock, but they must confine their fishing techniques to using artificial flies or lures - devices that seem to not interest the nurse sharks there. Commercial fishing was not affected by the new regulations as they operate further offshore and away from the nurse shark aggregations. The New South Wales government made a sensible incremental step, recognizing the desire of locals anglers to have fishing access while at the same time acknowledging that something needed to be done to avoid needlessly killing the grey nurse sharks there.

Progress can be measured in big steps, like the various anti-shark fin legislative proposals that have passed or are close to passing in several countries. And it can be measured in small steps, like those that are protecting Australia's grey nurse shark.

Read about New South Wales' grey nurse sharks in The Coffs Coast Advocate.

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