With Sharknado, Jaws and other fish fear-mongering entertainment, sharks have long been labeled either a nuisance or a menace. But a new wave of high profile conservationists are casting out a line to help save sharks, whose numbers are being decimated in “jaw”-dropping numbers. Some estimates say over 100 million are killed each year for sport and for food, much faster than this aggressive species can recover.
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to ban the sale of shark fins in New York State last month.
Cuomo followed the lead of other states that ban the sale of the fins, mostly used in Asian soup. The shark is cruelly thrown back into the water after its fin is sliced off, leading to a slow, agonizing death. The ban will discourage imports, though fins have been selling for hundreds of dollars per pound in Chinatown. The ban takes effect in July 2014.
Painter April Gornik protested the Montauk shark kill tournaments for years but supported a catch and release tournament in July. Shark’s Eye was the first Montauk-based, no-kill, satellite tag shark tournament ever held.
Selected sharks were given GPS tags during the event. Sharks that were tagged and released were photographed to determine validity, though some still grumbled that it wouldn’t be the same as stringing the beast up on the dock.
Gornik realized there was a way to work with sport fisherman by promoting the use of circle hooks—a curved steel barb that can be easily pulled out of the animal’s mouth, and if not, the salt of the sea will help dissolve it.
“My goal is to work with them, not against them,” she says. “If we can support tournaments that use only circle hooks, then it’s a happier medium. The hooks worked great at the tournament in the Makos and Blue Sharks that were caught, tagged and released. I learned a lot from Frank Mundus, who was a big shark fisherman in Montauk and the inspiration for Quint in Jaws. He changed his mind later in life about how he hunted them and he began protecting the species.”
Gornik helped donate thousands of circle hooks and a print called “The Shark’s Eye” to the tournament.
“People also need to realize their importance in the food chain,” says Gornik. “The sharks eat sting rays, the rays eat shellfish. If we take away the shark the balance gets thrown off and it impacts the shellfish health and population.”
Photographer and artist Dalton Portella of Montauk was on the prowl for new subject matter a few months ago when he started a series of shark art. At first he went to the aquarium in Riverhead and photographed the big slow movers in the shark tank there.
“I love their beauty and sleekness,” he says from his studio. “The ones in the tank were big, but I wanted to see them in their element. Then I saw a shark cage dive advertised in Montauk so I went for it. We went on a day that the water was super flat, out about 25 miles offshore. There were dolphins and Humpback whales, it was stunning. Then we set out chum and went down in the cage.”
Within a few minutes he was surrounded by Blue Sharks.
“I wasn’t nervous at all. I was really comfortable being down there shooting pictures. We saw a lot of sharks that had hooks and lines attached to their mouths, and some that were tagged. It made me really sad to see all that tangle from their mouths that could be deadly to them.”
Portella’s art that resulted from the dive shows unusual angles of the shark, gliding away from the viewer, stripped of all its surrounding watery world.
“I was watching Shark Week on TV while I painted; it’s good to see some shows were about the importance of the shark. I hope the beauty of the art helps people to see them in a different light.”