Jordan Salama, an author whose first e-book, Each Day the River Modifications, about a journey down a river in Colombia, is scheduled for printing in 2021, is an adventurous soul. It takes one to know one – Salama published an article this week about shark fishing, and Greek-American Chris Stefanou is one of the people he talked about in the New York Times article titled, Drones, Hooks and Blood: Secrets of the Shark Fishermen of Long Island.
Stefanou “a lean and athletic 24-year-old, was on stretch of Tobay Beach, on Long Island” when he caught up with him, Salama writes. Stefanou had just caught his 71st shark of the summer, but that one was just measured and returned to the sea. “’Tag No. 13, male, 59 inches,’” he announced before guiding the animal back into the waves and watching it swim off,” according to the article, which noted “he also participates in a volunteer shark-tagging program managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a citizen-science effort that has produced useful data on shark migrations across oceans and up and down the coast.”
But Stefanou is a fisherman who is part of a long tradition as “catching sharks off the New York coast is nothing new. For generations, recreational surf fishermen, some of them local legends with names like Kayak Joe and Stingray Steve, have been hooking sandbar sharks or duskies or sand tigers – usually unintentionally, as bycatch to bluefish and striped bass. But with warming seas and abundant prey, sharks are passing closer and closer to the South Shore each summer. And for a younger crop of Long Island surf-casters looking for impressive photos to post on social media, the thrill of landing an apex predator is irresistible,” Salama noted.
“At times, it can be a brutal and bloody spectacle,” he continued, “the sharks often bleed from the hooks, and the fishermen sometimes bleed from the sharks’ coarse, armor-like skin. It usually takes more than one person to land a shark – at least one handling the rod and reel and another wrangling the animal. The prize is usually a very impressive selfie before the shark is released – or something darker. One picture shared in a private Facebook group this summer showed a sand tiger shark discarded on a Long Island beach with its head cut off.”
David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist and shark expert at Arizona State University, was quoted by Salama, “the shark angling community has a higher percentage of people that have this macho-man ‘I’m going to conquer giant beasts’ attitude,” and the article noted that “one particular set of photos from July caused a stir: In them, a college student from suburban Manhasset, N.Y., posed for a series of pictures, flexing and reclining alongside a large shark he had caught and later released. In one, he pulled its nose up to show its teeth.
“I was not a fan of what that guy did,” Stefanou said.
Salama writes that “Stefanou draws a sharp distinction between fishermen like “that guy” and himself. Even though he promotes his shark exploits on social media under the handle LI Sharkman, on the beach he expresses concern for the endangered species he catches and has spent several years learning how to handle the animals safely.”
Salama explained that “Stefanou uses a drone to help drop shark bait into the ocean off Tobay Beach, in the middle of Jones Beach Island in Nassau County,” adding that “just because a shark swims away doesn’t mean it will survive for very long afterward, according to shark experts. Stress and exhaustion from the fight on the line – and abrasions from being dragged up the sand – can leave lasting damage.”
“Stefanou films everything – everything – to post on social media,” the article reported, adding, “he’s part fisherman, part showman, and his nearly 13,000 followers on Instagram are well acquainted with his shark-catching process: Hook an oily baitfish through the mouth and out through the top of the head. Fasten the line with the bait to a pressure-release rig dangling from a sturdy white drone.”
Sharks – “along with dolphins, whales and seals,” Salama writes, “are becoming more abundant in New York waters … But shark populations around the world are still in rapid decline over all because of threats that include overfishing, slow reproduction rates and loss of reef habitat from climate change.”
Targeting particular species, even for catch-and-release, is prohibited by law. “The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ‘regularly patrols ocean beaches for the illegal harvest and take of prohibited species,’ with fines up to $250 for first-time violations, according to a statement shared with the Times,” the article noted, but added that “shark anglers would say they don’t ‘target’ particular species and that they cannot always control which ones get hooked on their lines. But when it comes to sharks, most Long Island fishermen – including Mr. Stefanou” who has never been fined, has “probably caught only these endangered species … NOAA, together with state and local agencies, makes clear that volunteers with its tagging program – which receives data from anglers all along the East Coast, where legal practices vary from state to state – are not exempt from area regulations. The threats that unrestricted shark-fishing pose to the survival of prohibited species, experts say, are too great.”
Dawn McReynolds, assistant director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Marine Resources, said in a statement, “there is greater conservation benefit in protecting these prohibited species from illegal fishing than there is from allowing shore-based anglers to catch and potentially injure or kill the animal in an effort to apply a tag.” Cowell concludes: “But anglers are passionate about what they do. So the practice continues.”