Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Is the Great White shark as rare as publicized?

The white shark, the famed Carcharodon Carcharias or Great White, is well-known for its migratory habits of roaming cold-water oceans in areas such as South Africa and - in the United States - off the coast of New England and California.

For a fearsome white shark to be encountered or documented off the more temperate Southeast Coast, specifically the South Carolina coast, is exceptionally rare. Or is it?

A few incidents in 2008 raise speculation - just how rare is this species off the Palmetto State's coast?

Morris Island Stranding: The most publicized white shark incident of the year came in November when a dead 13-foot, 2-inch long specimen washed up on Morris Island, just south of the jetties of Charleston.

The female was spotted on the beach and subsequently found by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources biologists on Nov. 18 on the uninhabited island, not far from the Morris Island Lighthouse.

The shark showed no signs of trauma from a fishing encounter or being hit by a boat or propeller. But, interestingly enough, scales from large red drum were found in its digestive tract during a necropsy.

Charles H. Farmer, III, retired from the DNR after 37 years, served many years as a marine biologist specializing in sharks off the S.C. coast. Farmer, now a legislative council and lobbyist for Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina, is the author of "Sharks of South Carolina."
"Just from what I was able to find out it probably died from some sort of disease," Farmer said earlier this week. "This one was likely feeding on big red drum, the big ones, the 10-30 pound red drum, in the coastal waters 4 to 10 miles offshore. That's where these big red drum congregate particularly in the fall of the year."

Smaller, mostly juvenile red drum, known locally as spottails, are also found in S.C. estuaries, but Farmer doubts this Great White entered estuary waters to feed on them.

Farmer did note that "years ago he documented an 8-foot Great White that had become entangled in a gill net at the end of the jetties at Charleston, not far from the spot where this specimen was found in November.

Great White Tagged: Tim Handsel, Director of Husbandry at Myrtle Beach's Ripley's Aquarium, and a crew were aboard a 25-foot research boat long-lining for sharks on May 3. The aquarium has a federal permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service's Highly Migratory Species Management Division and a state Scientific Activities Permit from the DNR to long-line.

While fishing 5½ miles off Garden City Beach in 34 feet of water with a surface water temperature of 69.5 degrees, the crew checked the 70-75 hooks (baited with chunks of mackerel) on the short long-line. They were surprised to find a nearly 10-foot female white shark.

"On that particular day there was a large slick in the area of the long-line and from what we could determine it was oil from a decaying animal," recalled Handsel earlier this week. "There probably was a carcass on the bottom the shark was feeding on that was the reason it was in the area. [The decaying animal] was within 200-300 yards of where the line had been set. That's when we caught the Great White."

Handsel and crew observed the shark, took measurements and photos, implanted a NMFS Apex Predator CSTP capsule tag into it and released it in very good shape.

"We were pretty certain [it was a Great White] and we talked to a number of authorities across the country to confirm our identification," Handsel said. "It weighed 400 to 500 pounds and that's a guess - we never lifted her out of the water. We've been doing this for several years and this is the first one we've seen."

Vermilion Wreck: This spring, in mid-April, a four-man crew, including Marlin Quay Marina owner Charles Stone, his two grandsons - Taylor and Austin Stone - and Lee Elkins ventured from Murrells Inlet to fish on the Vermilion wreck, located 27 miles east-southeast of the Winyah Bay jetties in 105 feet of water.

Taylor Stone described what they saw while drifting bait near the 460-foot wreck.

"We [saw] a school of amberjack under the boat and we saw what [we thought] was a big tiger shark," said Taylor Stone. "The water was crystal clear that day and it kept circling and got closer to the boat.

"When it came by the last time it was probably 6 to 7 feet under the water. Lee said 'Is that what I think it is?' I said 'It looks like a Great White.'"

Elkins grabbed a camera and snapped a photo of the shark as it eased past the boat.

"It was a huge animal," Charles Stone said. "I've been fishing out of here for 30 years and that's the first one I ever saw. I absolutely thought it was a Great White."

Taylor Stone was in awe of the size of the shark, especially considering they were fishing in a 27-foot center console Sea Pro.

"That shark was well over three-quarters of the length of the boat," said Taylor Stone. "It was every bit of 18 feet long. And that's conservative."

In all, that makes two definite Great White occurrences in South Carolina waters and one more possible encounter from April to November. Are these top-of-the line, apex predators more common here than many think? Farmer gave his thoughts on the subject.

"When I look back at the three or four animals I looked at and reports that [the DNR received] over the last 35 years, we're probably in the southernmost part of that species range," Farmer said. "In South Carolina you find generally very, very few numbers. We're on the fringe of seeing these animals and that's why you occasionally get reports like that."

Dr. Jose Castro is a scientist with the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a senior biologist with the Shark Research Department of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and gave his thoughts on the migratory habits of the species.

"They migrate all along the coast and they are in South Carolina waters going [north] in the month of May," Castro said. "They move up north until they get above New York and they go all the way to Newfoundland. That's part of their natural habitat and range."

Farmer notes that the white shark is one of 22 species of sharks that are protected - no possession or harassment of the species allowed - in South Carolina and federal waters.
"They're slow-growing, they're very late to mature and [reach] 12-13 feet before they reproduce," Farmer said. "They only give birth to about 3 to 4 young every year or every other year.
"Its numbers are so depressed the species is really threatened. They're in danger and without conservation measures they'd eventually be wiped out."

Contact GREGG HOLSHOUSER at 843-651-9028 or at wholshouser@sc.rr.com.


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