Sharks are punching holes in shrimpers' budgets, patience

July 19, 2010 

Trawl for shrimp a couple hours, then patch the shark-chomped nets for a few more.

Such is life lately for Craig Reaves, owner of C.J.'s Seafood Market in Beaufort.

It's almost every day that sharks gnaw at his shrimp nets, he said, leaving the costly task of patching them for the next day.

"It's always been an issue in the summertime," Reaves said. "But it's probably the worst we've ever seen it this year. The sharks are just eating our nets up on a regular basis."

And that's trouble for shrimpers. It costs them lost time, the expense of replacing or repairing the nets and the shrimp that escape through the holes or are eaten by the sharks.

Reaves's observations were echoed by other local shrimpers, who say they've dealt with sharks more than ever in 2010.

"It's a lot more prevalent this year from what I've heard and seen on the dock," said Tonya Desalve, owner of Benny Hudson's Seafood on Hilton Head Island. "The hot water brings the sharks, but it seems to be even more this year."

Mel Bell, director of fisheries management for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, has heard the complaints, too. No data exist on the net attacks, he said, but all indications show they're up this year.

Bell hypothesizes that years of tighter restrictions on shark fishing have thinned out one of their two main predators -- humans. The other shark predator is other sharks, which might have been thinned by earlier over-fishing, leaving younger sharks room to grow.

This year, in particular, there was a six-month ban on catching small coastal shark species that ended in June. A six-month ban on catching larger species, like blacktips, ended Thursday.

The most common shark in the Lowcountry is the relatively small, 3-foot-long Atlantic sharpnose. But some 39 species roam here -- sandbar sharks, blacknose sharks, finetooth sharks, bull sharks, tiger sharks.

And although93 people applied to fish South Carolina's waters for sharks in 2009, only 22 have filed applications this year, Bell said.

"There's not too many shark fishers out there," said David Harter, president of Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club. "We usually catch sharks because we're fishing for something else. We sometimes think of them as a nuisance, but they're a normal part of an ecosystem."

But to shrimper Richard Baldwin, the word for sharks is nuisance.

"If you go out there, they'll bite you every day," he said, of his nets. "They're bad."

Bo Petersen of postandcourier.com contributed to this report.

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