Why are more Florida fishermen's catches being stolen by sharks?

NOAA sponsors study seeking answers
Shark attacking fish
Posted at 2:40 PM, Nov 15, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It's a common annoyance that has only grown worse over the years — millions of Florida fishermen are in a constant battle with sharks destroying their catch.

"We also lose money in gear. We lose money in time, you know, hooks and lines. Everything costs money, so when a shark takes that from you, you lose everything," said Jeremy Prouty, a commercial and recreational fisherman.

Prouty is an avid angler who turned his passion into an award-winning career, becoming one of the best in the country. But lately, his livelihood has hit a snag. The prize catches that he's used to pulling in are getting taken off his hook.

"Where some places we used to fish, you literally can't fish there anymore because every desirable fish you hook, it's eaten by a shark," Prouty explained.

Researchers call it shark depredation.

It's become such a problem that scientists are now working to come up with some solutions.

Fish mostly eaten by shark
A fisherman stands astonished after a shark eats a majority of its catch.

Professor Matthew Ajemian, an assistant research professor with Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, is leading the charge on the study, which is being sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He said the cause remains unclear, but an increase in shark populations over the years could be the culprit.

"A lot of shark populations are showing some signs of recovery, which they have come back from being decimated decades ago thanks to great management and things like that," Ajemian said. "These populations are really starting to recover, and this might be one of the consequences of that."

For his study, he's teaming up with local captains and relying on DNA sampling to gain some insight.

"When the sharks are biting the fish, the mucus, the residue which has pieces of their DNA, gets left on the fish. It's basically a marker, and we try and collect that when we swab around the fish," Ajemian said.

Fish attacked by shark
A fisherman shows off what's left of a recently caught fish.

Ajemian is also looking to survey anglers across Florida every three months to help determine if the change in seasons is a factor.

"In the wintertime here, as you may know, a lot of sharks come here, just like snowbirds, and hang out here," he said. "So, we're thinking that there might be higher interactions that time of year, but it's not something we have ever done experimentally, and we really want to use the fisherman to help us try and diagnose this."

The study is expected to last for a year.

Once it's complete, Ajemian and his team will present their findings to NOAA.

In the meantime, they are also looking for more anglers to help collect samples, especially those living in Palm Beach and Martin counties.

To get involved, email Ajemian here.

This story was originally published by Kamrel Eppinger on Scripps station WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida.