We’re still operating near San Clemente Island, between 5 and 10 miles from the shore. We’ve seen some Bottlenose Dolphins and distantly breaching whales. These waters between the islands and mainland, relatively sheltered as they are and well-lardered with small prey like mackerel and squids, serve as nursery to the sharks we seek.
We set our longline across a place called Emery Knoll, a hill that comes up to 1,800 feet from water 3,300 feet deep. There’s virtually no continental shelf off the West Coast, and these depths seem extreme compared to the East Coast, where, this close to shore the water would be less than 100 feet deep, and you have to go 75 miles offshore to reach water 600 feet deep.
Out of 200 hooks, we’re catching about four animals per set. Longlines are notorious for catching lots of unwanted creatures. But our longline has caught only what we want. That’s because the wire cable of the line and leaders scares away shyer fishes like Swordfish and tunas. We’ve caught only Blue and Mako sharks, and one Pelagic Stingray.
The stingray is a strange animal to be a wanderer of the open ocean. It looks like it should be a bottom dweller, and it’s hard to imagine it catching open-water prey, which it apparently does by cloaking it with its wings. It’s also dark above and dark below, which would seem to make it an easy mark for Makos. Whether they indeed attack or avoid the stinger-equipped rays, I don’t know. Our captive, being studied by one woman on board, is spending an extended visit in a large plastic box about 4-feet x 4 x 4, on deck.
One thing true of longlines in many places is true for us, too: we’re catching a lot of babies. But we’re interested in catching babies. Each of the Blue Sharks we’ve caught and tagged has been quite small, less than three feet in length. But very pretty. The blues of the sharks is the color of the open ocean. It’s just gorgeous.
The Makos have ranged around 30 pounds, but with some larger. We’ve seen two that were a little over a hundred pounds and one well over 200 pounds, about seven feet long.
Among my favorite animals, Makos are ballistic missiles, bullet headed, huskily torpedo-shaped and one of the few warm-bodied fishes. They are fearsome and lovely in the extreme. This juxtaposition, and the intensity with which they display both extreme menace and extreme beauty, make them addictively compelling creatures.
One of the little Makos came up dead. Nobody likes this – we’re here to tag and release after all. But the animals aren’t wasted. From the small Mako that died the scientists collected the brain, eye muscles, and stomach for an enzyme study. Its gills carried parasitic copepods that were sucking off some of the shark’s blood, causing the gills in that area to look enlarged and anemic. The copepods seemed to gather where water-flow was least. It was pretty interesting.
As for the rest of the animal, our galley steward grilled the meat in steaks. It tasted so good, it made me sad. Years ago I thrilled in catching Makos on rod and reel, occasionally killing one for the table, and stocking my freezer with delicious steaks. We had some great barbecues back then. Those feasts are taking on the patina of “old days” memories. The taste of these Mako steaks was like a sudden whiff of a scent from childhood. It made me realize how much I missed those times.
I have caught a few Makos in recent years but for nearly a decade have released them all, because in the Atlantic where I fish, larger Makos have become scarce. In fact all the larger shark species in the Atlantic have declined precipitously due mainly to commercial overfishing. Some, like Dusky and Hammerhead sharks, are so scarce we simply don’t see them anymore. I still see people bringing Makos to the docks, but everyone knows the fishing isn’t what it was, and I just don’t feel right killing them anymore.
But I miss the days when I felt I could take a Mako for the table now and then. The world seemed richer, and it was.
- Carl Safina