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Forget 'Jaws,' it seems we're rooting for the sharks

Remember when everyone cheered during Jaws as Martin Brody blew the death machine into a million bloody bits?

Remember when you cheesed for a photo beside the fake shark carcass hanging at Universal Studios?

And remember when two teenagers caught a pregnant 9-foot bull shark in St. Petersburg on Wednesday? Or when that longtime captain killed a pregnant hammerhead to break a world record this month?

Oh, right. There weren't as many smiles for that. Some comments from this week's shark story on tampabay.com, the St. Petersburg Times' Web site:

Why is suffocating an animal and dragging her around on a hook and line celebrated as conquest?

Wish I could get my hands on those idiots... Next thing you know they kill people.

There is no RIGHT any person has to kill an animal other than the unwritten code of the southern redneck!

If shark killing is out, shark sympathy is in.

• • •

Josh Lipert and Robert Korkoske figured they'd get praise for reeling in the biggest catch of their young lives.

"We've done it so many times before and never had any luck," said Lipert, 19, who works at a marina. "It's a hit or miss kind of deal. I've caught four total, but nothing that big. Those were all catch and release."

The St. Petersburg teens displayed the dead shark for all too see, just like people did in the old days. Photographers came to the scene, just like they did in the old days.

But the reaction was far from praise.

One woman even tracked down Lipert on MySpace, he said, and wrote, "People like you are why animals are endangered."

"I was like, sharks were here before we were, and they're going to be here after we're gone," said Lipert, who divided up the meat among friends and donated the organs and bull shark pups for scientific study.

He plans to put the jaws on his dresser or a wall. He says he won't kill any more sharks.

Korkoske, 16, also brushed off detractors.

"I'm not going to quit fishing just because people don't appreciate me catching sharks," he said Thursday. "It's legal."

Legal, yes. But biologists say it's a dangerous game.

"They've been overfished, not only here but around the world," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. "For many species, their populations are at very low levels."

State law limits shark catches to one a day. Bull sharks, among the world's most dangerous, are not endangered, but are listed by the World Conservation Union as "near threatened."

Hammerheads, like the pregnant one killed by Capt. Bucky Dennis this month, are between 75 and 90 percent depleted in the Gulf of Mexico, research shows.

Sharks mature and reproduce slowly at a relatively older age. When a litter is lost, it can be detrimental to the species. Female sharks are usually pregnant in the spring. And it doesn't take a biologist to distinguish a female from a male — just look for the obvious.

"Play the odds that the shark is pregnant," said Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory. "It's a 50-50 chance."

• • •

Why all the ire for sharks in the first place?

Everyone points to Jaws, the 1975 horror movie that painted them as ruthless killers who snatched up children on a summer's day.

"Sadly, the general public ate that up and believed it," said Burgess. "There was what I'm fond of calling a collective testosterone rush along the United States coast and other areas of the world where everyone wanted to go out and catch a shark and have their picture taken next to the head and put the jaws on their mantle at home."

It's not that sharks aren't predators. But attacks don't happen every day.

A man recently reported being bit by a shark on Clearwater Beach. If confirmed, it would be just the 12th documented, unprovoked attack in Pinellas County since 1882, according to the International Shark Attack File.

A day later, vacationers frolicked in the water.

People have a better understanding of sharks, thanks to conservation efforts and shows like Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. They're portrayed softer in pop culture — like Bruce, Finding Nemo's shark who attends therapy and spouts the line, "Fish are friends, not food."

On Earth Day, Sen. John Kerry introduced the Shark Conservation Act of 2009, which seeks to end the practice of shark finning, where sharks are caught for their fins, and discarded at sea. Sharks are even cause celebre. January Jones, the beautiful blond star of TV's Mad Men, is spokeswoman for Oceana's campaign to save sharks. "We should be scared for sharks," she says.

"Sympathy toward sharks has grown, and the recognition process has come upon the general public that these are magnificent animals," said Burgess. "They hold a very special place in the sea as apex predators at the top of the food chain, and they're deserving of our concern."

Oh, remember Peter Benchley, who wrote the book Jaws and helped foster a terrifying shark reputation? Later, he said he felt bad about it.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Forget 'Jaws,' it seems we're rooting for the sharks 05/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 1:29pm]
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