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Watering down of rules throws sharks to wolves

December 24, 1992

One of the great indoor sports for Floridians is browsing our souvenir shops, to see what tourists are buying.

Once I found a shark embryo in a jar. No joke: A store in Key West had an entire shelf of real shark embryos, bottled like dill pickles. This was promoted as a clever memento of one's tropical vacation.

These days you won't find so many baby sharks, on land or sea. We've done quite a job of slaughtering them.

Some of the killing occurs in the name of sport, because shark are fine game fish. Ernest Hemingway sometimes machine-gunned his initials into their heads. As a kid, I killed a few myself, though not so exuberantly.

In those days we never dreamed the ocean would run out of sharks, but that's what is happening. The big money is in the fins, which are sold in Asia for expensive sharkfin soup.

It's an obscene reason to annihilate the planet's most important wild predator. Without sharks, the complex ecology of the sea will go haywire. This year Florida adopted a good law stopping commercial shark fishing within the three-mile state waters. It also limited the sharks taken by recreational anglers to one per day. (Some days, you'd be lucky to see that many.)

The U.S. government became so alarmed by the decline of sharks that it proposed similar restrictions in national waters, up to 200 miles offshore. It also sought to ban the barbaric practice of "finning"—hacking the fins off live sharks and tossing their maimed bodies overboard.

Weeks before the shark rules were to become law, a campaigning-President Bush announced a 9o-day moratorium on all new federal regulations. Now, with the election over, the National Marine Fisheries Service has presented a revised shark plan, which goes into effect in January. It's not nearly as tough as the original.

"An unmitigated disaster," says Dr. Sam Gruber, a University of Miami biologist who's been studying sharks since 1960.

Though live finning is outlawed, the new guidelines still allow commercial fishermen to take 2,436 metric tons of coastal sharks annually—lemon, bull, tiger, nurse and several other species. Each recreational boat can kill four.

"It's a joke," says Gruber. "It legalizes the wholesale slaughter of these things, for no reason."

The fisheries service insists the regulations will reduce the harvest enough that shark populations will resurge. Some marine biologists are skeptical. Unlike most fish, sharks take years to mature, and reproduce in small numbers. It worked for 4 million centuries, but not so well in the last decade.

Gruber has watched the change. In 1986, he began studying the life cycles of 140 lemon sharks in a secluded bight near No Name Key. The next year, only 90 of the sharks remained. By 1989, all were gone.

Divers and charter captains report similar observations along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Some commercial boats have gone out of business or moved to North Carolina, where sharks migrate in concentrations along the continental shelf.

Sure, sharks have a PR problem. Bumblebees kill more humans, but sharks get the bad press. And TV is always a sucker for dockside footage of a dead Great White, rotting ferociously in the sun.

Scary or not, sharks play a critical role in keeping the seas bountiful. It's not easy to kill off a creature that's survived 400 million years, but we've found a way. The rich folk do like their soup.

Meanwhile, I'm steering clear of tourist shops, in case somebody gets the bright idea for manatee steak.


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