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Great white sharks: Even the scariest of winter visitors in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast need protection

TAMPA

At first, Roger Young thought he was the victim of a practical joke. "A great white shark in the Gulf of Mexico? No way," the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission captain recalled. Over the years, Young has been sent on his share of wild goose chases. "But if we get a tip, we have to check it out, no matter how improbable it may be," he said. The anonymous call, placed two years ago this month, reported that a white shark, like the villain from the movie Jaws, had been caught on a grouper longline boat and brought into Madeira Beach.

"The species has been protected since 2004," Young said. "If you catch one, you have to let it go."

If you don't, it can be trouble.

The commercial shark season reopened at midnight this morning in the Gulf of Mexico. But white sharks are one of 20 species that must be released.

Last month, authorities concluded a two-year investigation sparked by that tip that resulted in two cases totaling more than $40,000 in civil fines.

The tipster said the shark had been killed and its jaws removed for sale on the black market.

"White shark jaws are quite valuable," said Kelly Moran Kalamas, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Law Enforcement. "I have seen estimates of anywhere from $7,800 to $22,000 for a single set of jaws, and that was before the sale became illegal."

The caller directed Young, Kala­mas and their colleagues to a storage facility in Seminole, where they discovered the head of a 10- to 12-foot-long white shark sitting on ice in a large cooler.

"We couldn't believe our eyes," Young said. "It was a first for me."

Demon of the deep

Of all the creatures in the sea, none strikes fear in the hearts of humans like Carcharodon carcharias. With its black eyes and distinctive white belly, this open-ocean predator is usually associated with the cool waters of New England (the setting for Jaws), California, South Africa and Australia, not the Gulf of Mexico.

But come January, when the temperature in the gulf plummets to 60 degrees or lower, the large sharks move into area waters, usually 20 miles or more offshore.

"These fish migrate from northern waters during the winter months," said Bob Hueter, a shark expert with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. "When they are young, white sharks feed primarily on fish. But as they age, their teeth change so they are better equipped to eat marine mammals."

Jose Castro, a shark specialist with NOAA's Fisheries Service, said white sharks probably once fed on Caribbean monk seals, which became extinct in 1948.

"People forget that we once had seals here," Castro said. "White sharks probably fed on these marine mammals. So historically speaking, white sharks have always been here."

Though the shark head seized in the joint federal-state investigation belonged to a juvenile shark, Hueter said most gulf sharks tend to be on the large side.

Big ones in gulf

A young, 10-foot white shark could kill a human, and the species can grow to 18 or 19 feet.

"We don't have any specimens larger than that," Castro said. "There have been reports of sharks larger than that, but we just don't have any proof."

Over the years, the bay area has had a few monsters brought into its ports, including a 151/2-foot white shark estimated at 2,200 pounds caught 23 miles west of Indian Rocks Beach on Jan. 23, 1994, Hueter said.

"When we do get great whites, they are usually pretty big," he said.

Bob Spaeth, a Madeira Beach seafood dealer who has worked with the commercial longline industry for 20-plus years, said he has had a few encounters .

"They'll come up and eat a big grouper in one bite," Spaeth said. "We hooked one that must have been 18 feet long, 80 miles offshore. We got it up alongside, and it scared me."

Spaeth said the shark lingered for a minute, then swam off, breaking 900-pound-test line as if it were kite string.

"I think there are a lot more of them out there than people think," Spaeth said. "You just don't hear about them."

Charges filed

State and federal authorities spent months working the white shark case.

"It was very complicated," FWC Officer Ed Chambers said. "This case led us to another set of white shark jaws. We spent months putting all this together."

And once the civil charges were filed, it took another year for the cases to work through the slow-moving federal administrative process.

In December 2008, nearly two years after the seizure, authorities released details of the operation, which resulted in total fines of $45,500. Three individuals and two corporations were charged with violating the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

According to federal documents, Deborah Thorsteinsson, 56, of Seminole, who had the original shark jaws, was fined $5,000. Nicholas Carter, 25, of Largo, the captain of the Blackjack IV, the vessel that caught the shark, was fined $20,000. The boat's owner, Cargold Fishery Inc. of Valrico, received a $4,000 fine.

In the second white shark case, Jeffrey Stark, 43, of Madeira Beach, captain of the Provider, was fined $12,500. The corporation that owned the boat, Provider Inc., received a $4,000 fine.

"Like any top predator, such as a tiger or mountain lion, white sharks have never been abundant," Castro said. "But they are out there and probably more common than people realize."

FAST FACTs

At a glance

White shark, Carcharodon carcharias: Also known as the great white shark, white pointer, white death and man-eater.

Distribution: Found worldwide, particularly in the cool waters off the coasts of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, New England and California, and during the winter months, in the Gulf of Mexico.

Size: This open-ocean predator reaches sexual maturity at 11 to 14 feet but can reach lengths of 18 to 19 feet. Larger specimens have been reported, but documentation is limited.

Diet: Fish, squid, other sharks, sea turtles, seals, sea lions and dead whales.

Status: Protected since 2004 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Record (rod and reel): 2,664 pounds, April 21, 1959, by Alfred Dean in Ceduna, Australia.

Source: International Game Fish Association

White shark Q&A

How common are white sharks in the Gulf of Mexico?

Numbers aren't known because no formal census has been conducted. But from December to February annually, commercial bottom longline boats working the west coast of Florida typically catch several white sharks while fishing for grouper.

How come the area hasn't had reported attacks on humans?

In the Gulf of Mexico, white sharks are typically found in deep water, from 20 to 100 miles offshore. Unlike California, Australia and South Africa, which have marine mammals — i.e., seals and sea lions — living along their coasts, the gulf doesn't have a food source to bring white sharks close to shore.

The great white in the movie Jaws looked huge. How big do these sharks really get?

Mature white sharks average about 14 feet in length, though they can grow to 18 or 19 feet. A 21-foot white shark was reportedly caught off the coast of Cuba in 1948, but marine biologists doubt the veracity of that claim. Reports of white sharks 20 feet and longer can be found in historic record, but those reports have not been substantiated.

Terry Tomalin, Times Outdoors Editor

Great white sharks: Even the scariest of winter visitors in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast need protection 01/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 11:06am]

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