While fishing for red snapper on a bright, calm day last fall, Johnny Silva, a commercial angler of Fort Pierce, Fla, hooked into a pesky 10-foot nurse shark. As Silva was leaning over the side of his boat trying to haul the lummox out of the water, his left hand slipped and the shark seized it. Although a good bit is known today about sharks, no one can surely say what any one of them will do in a given situation. Rather than biting down hard on Johnny Silva's hand as a nurse shark would customarily do on such a soft morsel, this shark merely held Silva's hand firmly in its mouth, sucking on it lovingly as a child is wont to do with a lollipop. Whenever Silva tried to withdraw his hand, the shark would roll an eye at him and increase the pressure of its jaws. "Each time it clamped down hard," Silva relates, "it felt like a 300-pound man was standing on my hand wearing golf shoes. After 20 minutes trying to get it back, I began wondering what sort of work I could take up as a one-armed man."
Luckily two rival fishermen out of Vero Beach happened by and shouted across the water to ask Silva if he were in trouble. "If a shark swallowing your hand is a problem," Silva shouted back, "then I've got a problem." Like most commercial fishermen of the area, the Vero Beach anglers had a gun aboard—a .38 magnum revolver—explicitly for killing sharks. The simplest way to kill a shark is to put as many shots as necessary into its small brain, but the Vero Beach men realized that, in this case, any magnum slug fired into the shark's brain would also pass through Silva's hand. As a desperate alternative, Silva suggested that his rescuers fire into the shark's rearmost gill slit, on the theory that such a cruel surprise just might make the beast open its mouth. The Vero Beach men did as Silva suggested, The shark opened its mouth. Silva quickly pulled out his hand, which was lightly damaged but had all fingers still functioning.
While Johnny Silva probably is the only man who has had any shark hold his hand in such an intimate manner for 20 minutes, on the east coast of Florida in the past few years a number of people, both residents and paying guests, have had more contact with sharks than they care for. From Vero Beach south to Fort Lauderdale, on docks and in bars and in the privacy of their shanties and palaces all manner of fishermen are objecting to the depredations of the shark. The gill-netter lays his net in the shallows half a mile offshore, hoping for Spanish mackerel. A gang of sharks slams into the net and in a trice a thousand pounds of fish are gone and so is a good bit of the net. The scuba diver spearing fish for pleasure or profit on the second reef beyond the 10-fathom line finds the big hammerhead and tiger shark frequently about him, swiping his catch, nudging him and butting the wind out of him. Waving both his good hands, Johnny Silva, the near-victim of the nurse shark, complains, "You find a good snapper hole, and when you get the first fish on you feel the line go down, down, down. A shark has the fish, and you might as well move on, because you won't get another snapper there."
A charter-boat man, Bud Partin, reports, "We had a beautiful, big bull dolphin on. Then came the shark. We brought in little more than the dolphin head. It weighed 29 pounds." In similar fashion the commercial trollers complain that too often now the shark is taking the kingfish (worth 30¢ a pound) off their hooks, leaving them only worthless heads. In the Palm Beach area, where billfishing is a way of life, when a gallant sailfish is brought to boat, customarily it is revived and released so it might live to fight another day. But now, too often, the shark is there, waiting for the half-exhausted prize. Frank Ardine, the grand master of the charter skippers in the Palm Beach area, insists that 10 years ago his fishing parties rarely lost more than one sailfish a month to sharks. Today, although his clients are bringing only half as many sailfish to boat, the sharks are getting six a month.
Too often today the shark is right off the beach among the bathers—jostling, bullying and occasionally biting some luckless soul. Because a shark doesn't always know its own mind is no reason for a bather to be scatterbrained. If fins are showing, a swimmer should remain beached. If he is already in the water he should head for shore, making as little disturbance as possible. A hotel waitress (whom we shall call Janice Anonymous so that she does not lose her job) says bluntly, "I saw fins in the surf right from the hotel. I have not been in the water for a week."
Her mother, Rachel Anonymous, who works at a beachfront snack shop, says, "I saw three fins. The lifeguard said they were porpoises, but no porpoise swims like a shark." Of all the people from all walks of life who are up against the shark on Florida's east coast, the commercial fishermen are probably getting the worst of it, economically speaking. However, the surfer, the latest breed of water lover to proliferate in Florida, should have the most concern for the future. He is the tantalizing new intruder in the shark's world. The surfer dangles his edible appendages in the roiled water of the break in a tempting way. Already he is being bitten occasionally and too often is getting the bum's rush. Heaven help him if any number of sharks ever find out that he is indeed an easy mark.
Since tourism is a considerable part of the Florida east coast's prosperity, the shark today is affecting the livelihood of many people who seldom, if ever, go fishing, bathing, diving or surfing. Each time he opens his big mouth, the shark, in effect, is giving the area a bad press. As a consequence, opinion in the area is divided as to what should be done. There are those who believe action should be taken now, even if the consequent publicity affects the tourist trade. At the other extreme, there are many who insist that the shark problem has already been exaggerated and the less action taken—the less done to attract attention—the less everyone will suffer.
Three years ago, addressing the annual convention of the Underwater Society of America, Dr. Donald de Sylva of Miami's Institute of Marine Science warned that the growing shark threat in southern Florida should no longer be swept under the rug. It is human nature, of course, to ignore local prophets, particularly one preaching the painful truth. Dr. de Sylva's counsel was largely disregarded until last April, when a small pack of sharks drove the point home. On April 20th, while 10-year-old Steven Samples was swimming in 5½ feet of water 25 feet off Palm Beach Shores, he was attacked by at least three sharks. He almost lost an arm and a leg and was bitten savagely also in the buttocks and back. In his medical report the surgeon who sewed young Samples back together said, "Literally hundreds and hundreds of sutures were utilized." Since Samples was the third person to be seriously attacked in a half-mile stretch of beach in six months, a portion of the citizenry was aroused.
Two weeks after the Samples attack a panel of shark experts met in Palm Beach at the invitation of Congressman Paul Rogers, who represents a large stretch of the affected waterfront. At the meeting there were not only local prophets of merit such as Dr. de Sylva but outsiders even more experienced, notably Captain David Baldridge of the U.S. Navy, Dr. Perry Gilbert, chairman of the national shark panel, and Stewart Springer, who is the sharkiest man in the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. These experts recommended—with no dissent among them—that the Florida east coast communities should encourage fishing for sharks—specifically commercial fishing—to reduce the hazard and depredation. It was the explicit opinion of Stewart Springer that, by fishing for sharks, a sports group called the Palm Beach Sharkers, headed by a meticulous local naturalist, Morris Vorenberg, had been giving the area about $100,000 worth of free protection a year.
Short of getting direct word from God, the local governments in the area had received about the best advice possible. Most of them straightway proceeded to do almost nothing. Indeed, a few seemed to lean over backward to see that nothing was done. Heeding the advice of the experts, in two nights of fishing half a dozen anglers pulled 50 sharks out of the surf off Riviera Beach, just north of where Steven Samples was nearly killed. The following morning Riviera Beach was posted "No fishing."
Such nitty-witty attempts to shy away from the problem are not new on the Florida east coast. For the past seven years the resort community of Fort Lauderdale By The Sea has had an ordinance that reads: "WHEREAS, fishing for, exhibition of, or landing of sharks, barracuda or sting ray on the beaches of the Town of Fort Lauderdale By The Sea or the ocean waterways abutting said beaches is deterrent to enjoyment of said beaches by the tourists, visitors and residents alike, and conveys the impression that said beaches are shark infested.... It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to fish for shark, barracuda or sting ray, or exhibit shark, barracuda or sting ray, or land shark, barracuda or sting ray on the beaches of the Town of Fort Lauderdale By The Sea...."
Also heeding the advice of the experts, the Buccaneer Yacht Club of Palm Beach Shores, the North Palm Beach Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Lake Worth Junior Chamber of Commerce held shark tournaments, on the theory that such affairs would get rid of some sharks and, more important, keep the public aware of the problem until some government—county, state or federal—took stronger action. The Jaycees' effort was deplored on television by Paul Thompson, the executive director of the Palm Beach County Development Board. "I think that the tournament was well intentioned," Thompson told TV viewers, "but I don't believe that we should hang our dirty linen out in the national front street."
A committee was organized in the Palm Beach area to try to get a commercial shark industry established. The committee got nowhere. Today, oozing displeasure at the reluctance of local governments and industry to collaborate, John Rybovich, the noted West Palm Beach boatbuilder who headed the committee, says, "The attitude of most people in the tourist industry is to whitewash the situation. The only thing that would be convincing now is for someone to get killed."
Because shark liver was found to be virtually a mother lode of vitamin A, back in the 1930s and '40s a shark-fishing industry prospered at Salerno on the Florida east coast. Although the vitamin content varied greatly even from one liver to another from the same shark species, in most livers it far exceeded the potency of the sticky, ucky cod-liver oil that children gagged down. Most shark-liver oil was used to fortify poultry feed, but a good bit was marketed in capsules for humans. In its best 10 years, the Salerno operation took more than 100,000 sharks from Florida east coast waters. In 1950, after means were found to synthesize vitamin A cheaply, the Salerno operation closed—at just about the time, ironically, that the boating boom began and many Americans were taking up water-skiing, spearfishing and other sports that carried them farther into the shark's realm.
Anglers who have been working Florida waters for 20 years or more fairly well agree that, after the Salerno operation stopped, the depredations of sharks progressively increased. If local government and industry of the area seem reluctant to act on such evidence—and on the advice of experts—it is in the main because they do not know enough about the shark to realize that he is an exceptional opponent. In wars against other predators—bug or bird or beast—human experts usually in time can find a weakness in the rival and hit it hard. Such a weakness perhaps will be found in the shark, but it will take some doing. We humans are complicated fly-by-nights who were born yesterday and very likely will be gone early tomorrow. Enchanted by our own brief appearance on the stage, we fail to appreciate the convincing talents of a durable performer like the shark—an ancient simpleton of slick modern design. Though blessed with little brains, the shark was programmed to endure, come what might. Since he has never been much of a specialist, his range cannot be destroyed. It is almost impossible to starve him out, for he is very catholic in his tastes—in a pinch, any flesh will do. Off the Florida coast, when there are freakish upwellings of cold water, bony fishes die by the thousands, but not the shark. He profits from the loss.
When too much sweet water spills into the sea from Florida's drainage system, frequently the balance of nature is upset, and, again, the shark usually profits. Experts who have examined the nervous systems of various species to try to understand their ways have found that the shark is not wired up, so to speak, like other fish. To judge by countless instances of kooky behavior, the brain of a shark does not always seem to know, or care, what its mouth or its stomach is up to. There are instances of sharks taking a second hook after they had been caught and gutted and thrown back into the sea presumably dead. One lemon shark in Florida, after being skinned and thrown back as dead, swam away and was caught by another angler.
When the Salerno fishery killed off 100,000 sharks two decades ago, it was actually ridding the area of at least half again that number. A fair part of any large shark catch consists of females bearing young that at birth are thick-skinned, sharp-toothed and ready to make their way. A few cold, biological facts about the sand-tiger shark, a ragged-tooth species that preys on game fish in the shallows, should convince any doubter that, even before birth, that species, at least, has more sang froid than the late John Dillinger. Although a female sand tiger produces a good number of eggs that hatch internally in a dual uterine system, so far as is known she never litters more than two offspring. The first shark pup hatched in each uterus eats all his younger brothers and sisters, and then, when there is nothing left to nibble on except mother, he heads out into the world. Stewart Springer, one of the experts on the emergency panel held in Palm Beach, worked at the old Salerno shark fishery as a manager, experimenter and troubleshooter. Although sand-tiger pups usually do not emerge from their mothers until they are more than three feet in length, while Springer was reaching into the oviduct of a sand tiger in the course of research one day he was bitten by an unborn sand tiger only nine inches long.
While Palm Beach County, the most prosperous section of the coast, is doing little about the problem, in the waters farther north, around Fort Pierce, pressure is once again being put on the shark. Although the liver is no longer marketable, the shark is being hunted profitably to satisfy the peculiar demands of three rather disparate cultures: Texans, south central Europeans and Chinese. This winter anyone who dangles a fishing line or a foot unmolested in the waters between Vero Beach and Jupiter Inlet should be grateful that there are smart-dressing Texans who, knowing good leather when they see it, have been insisting for some years that their Sunday best shoes be made out of shark hide. The hides of sharks caught off Florida are now being used to cover the feet of Texans—and an increasing number of other Americans—who want a shoe that is both dressy and almost unscuffable. The meat of Florida sharks is now being shipped frozen in bulk to Europe, where it subsequently shows up on menus under various assumed names. The Chinese have never been able to get enough shark fins for use in soup. Some of the fins taken off Florida sharks travel farther than any other delicacy in the world. All of the Florida fins are shipped to Newark. In Newark some are transshipped 12,000 miles to Hong Kong, where they are processed and shipped back for use in the finest Oriental restaurants in San Francisco and New York.
There is a shark industry in Florida today primarily because, about four years ago, a New Englander named Leslie Rayen and a North Jerseyite named John Dreher quite independently decided to forsake the professions they were equipped for to make a profit out of sharks. Until 1964, 40-year-old Les Rayen had spent some of his life messing around in boats and a larger part serving in the Army's Special Forces in various tropical and subtropical climes. When he finally left the Army, Rayen found the winters in Massachusetts, his homeland, unbearable. He packed himself and his family off to Florida, entertaining the idea that he could make a good living catching fish—which any Florida commercial fisherman will tell you is almost an impossible dream. On the waterfront, Rayen ran across two Cuban refugees who were supplementing their odd jobs by venturing far offshore in a junky boat to catch sharks, just as they had back home before Castro. The Cubans shipped their shark hides and fins to an outfit called Ocean Leather Corporation in Newark. The Cubans had no idea what became of the hides and fins. They merely knew that, after shipping a certain quantity, in time they received a certain number of dólares.
The Ocean Leather Corporation had been muddling along in Newark since the 1920s. Sun-cured shark skin has been used since ancient days as decorative material and as an abrasive, but its value beyond that was almost nil until the original proprietors of Ocean Leather found a way to remove the hard denticles from the hide and render it into a soft, workable leather. Shoes of shark hide were first test-marketed m the Fort Worth area in 1926. For the next 40 years, almost all the shoes, belts and briefcases made of shark hide—about 98% of the total production—were sold in Texas. Fabricators did not bother trying other markets because Ocean Leather could not supply enough leather even to satisfy Texas. Prior to 1964 Ocean Leather was processing about 16,000 shark hides annually—enough to cover the feet of about 35,000 Texans of size 14 or smaller. The supply came in the main from Mexico and Cuba and other countries ringing the Caribbean. Ocean Leather never really had a sure idea when the next bundle of hides would show up from anywhere. It was, in a word, too much of a que serà operation.
In 1964 the ownership of Ocean Leather changed hands. Armed with a degree in political science that he had recently acquired at Wisconsin, John Dreher, the son of one of the new proprietors, traveled through Mexico and Central America encouraging shark fishing and showing veteran fishermen how to catch more sharks—an enterprise that he found particularly challenging, since, at the outset, he knew almost nothing about it. By picking up know-how in one locale and passing it on to humble fishermen in the next—and more importantly, by simply letting the suppliers get to know their buyer—he worked wonders. Dreher tends to pooh-pooh the effect his junket had on the shark-hide industry, but his opinion can be largely disregarded because he is not only a very modest man but exceptionally cautious in anything he says. (Dreher is the kind of man who, if he had been aboard the Ark with Noah, would have hesitated to say, "It certainly has been raining," for fear of offending someone.) In any case, in the four years since Dreher's odyssey south of the border, shark-hide production has gone up and up. Ocean Leather now processes 65,000 hides a year, and shoe manufacturers such as Nettleton, Florsheim and Allen-Edmonds are now marketing shark-leather shoes not only in Texas but in many big cities across the land. Even with the sharp increase in production, the market is far from becoming saturated.
In order to keep the supply of shark hides coming, Ocean Leather now handles shark meat and fins for its suppliers virtually at cost and sometimes at a loss. It was largely because various components of the shark now have a steady cash value that the transplanted New Englander, Les Rayen, became convinced that shark fishing off Florida might once again be profitable, provided he could put down enough well-baited hooks often enough to catch sharks in quantity.
Today a single tiger shark of fair size, say 12 feet, can bring Rayen more than $30. If it is in perfect condition the hide is worth a base price of $12.50 plus a bonus of 50%, because tiger shark is top-quality hide. At 7¢ a pound, Rayen will get back at least $10 for the meat, and for the fins (which are relatively small on a tiger) probably another $3. While all this sounds very profitable, no one should think of giving up a steady job at the local putty factory tomorrow with a mind to making a financial killing on Florida sharks. As Rayen well knows, many things can go wrong before the shark in the sea is converted into cash. In one of those breezy, wet spells of weather that Florida occasionally has, water may leak into Les Rayen's storage house, dampening salted hides stacked for shipment. The fresh water creates sour spots on the hides, and an $18 hide so spoiled may bring less than $5. When Rayen has laid a line of 100 hooks within half a mile of shore, often the first prize brought to the boat will be a male lemon shark. If so, Rayen prays that the male lemon does not throw the hook. When a hooked lemon does get loose, instead of simply taking it on the lam as any wild creature should, it most often swims along the line taking a bite out of every other shark hooked on it. Then, having ruined the other hides as if in spite, the lemon for some dumb reason usually will find a bait that has not yet been taken, swallow it hook and all, thus surrendering itself for the second time. Why does a lemon do that? No one knows.
On a fair day Rayen may string 400 baited hooks out on 4,800 feet of quarter-inch galvanized cable. The next day, when he would ordinarily go out and haul in the catch, the wind may swing to the northeast and howl from that direction for four or five days. By the time he can get safely back out through the shifty sands of the inlet, Rayen knows the catch on the line will be too long dead to have any value, but he must retrieve his gear since the main cable, the ‚⅛-inch leaders, the bronze snap shackles and the big Mustad hooks from Norway are worth more than $1,000. Anyone caring to know what it is like to haul 4,800 feet of line and find it burdened with overripe sharks can approximate the experience by opening 100 cans of sardines and letting them sit for a fortnight in a warm room.
One of the easiest ways to gauge the problems of the sharking game is to go aboard Les Rayen's boat, close your eyes and merely listen to the changes in his vocabulary as the day wears on. Rayen ordinarily is an unruffled, circumspect individual, most genteel in manner and speech. He meets most of his setbacks and surprises on land with one simple expletive: "Oh, for heaven's sake." When he is out on his boat, as the first large tiger shark is hauled to the surface, in similar fashion he simply exclaims, "Oh, for heaven's sake. This shark has tail-wrapped one leader and is foul-hooked on another." As tiger after tiger is hauled up, flailing and writhing, some of them clamping onto the bow of the boat with their jaws, others fouling two and three leaders and refusing to succumb although half a dozen .45 slugs are put in their brains, Rayen's language gets increasingly saltier and hotter. By the weary end of the day, his strongest expletives, if transmitted short wave, would burn holes in the face of the moon. It is altogether a vigorous effort for a shaky profit, but certainly a benefit to many communities that are only faintly aware that such an industry exists.
If you, gentle reader, are impressed by the Florida shark problem, here is what you can do to help. Whenever you order sharkfin soup in a Chinese restaurant, insist on Florida fins. (The inscrutable Chinese themselves recognize more than 200 different grades of sharks fins, so they are hardly in a position to object if you are picky and choosy.) Conversely, when dining in Europe, be most tolerant of fish entrees. If the Dover sole you order tastes more like a flank cut off a brontosaur, possibly it is Florida shark. Wash it down with a good wine, for you will be keeping pressure on the shark. To really help the cause, of course, you can buy a handsome pair of shark-leather shoes ($45.00 and up). If that seems steep, then buy a belt ($11.50 and up). Remember, by so doing, the life you save may be your own.