- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - The mere mention of sharks is enough for some people to start playing the theme music from the movie “Jaws” inside their heads.

“Shark mania” has become a part of summer, from the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” to new shark movies such as the recently released “The Shallows,” which brought in about $17 million in domestic returns during its first weekend in theaters.

The American obsession with sharks entered the pop culture consciousness in 1975 when a young director named Steven Spielberg unleashed the movie “Jaws,” which has made almost $500 million at theaters and struck a deep fearful chord of “don’t go in the water.”

The Mississippi Sound, which extends from Waveland, Mississippi, to Dauphin Island, Alabama, is known in some circles as a “shark nursery.”

There are several species of sharks found in the Mississippi Sound north of the barrier islands, with about 10 to 12 commonly found.

“The most commonly seen shark in the Mississippi Sound is the Atlantic sharpnose,” said Jill Hendon, assistant director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs. “We also have a lot of bull sharks, spinner sharks, and we occasionally get some of the bigger hammerheads in our specific area.”

Hendon said the reason the area is known as a “shark nursery” is because of the number of juvenile sharks that live in the Sound before they mature and move to offshore habitats.

“We have some of the greatest diversity of sharks here because of the unique system that our barrier islands and river runoff provide,” she said. “This is a very rich area for bait fish and in turn is a great area for juvenile sharks to live.”

Paul Mickle, biological coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said the barrier islands provide an abundance of food to sustain the appetites of young sharks.

“The Mississippi Sound is an extremely productive estuary that is unique because our rivers infuse nutrients to the Gulf and our barrier islands hold the nutrient-rich waters in a confined area,” Mickle said. “This allows for high densities of fish, shrimp, crabs and other aquatic life that sharks as well as many other predators benefit from - even humans.”

Hendon said the local shark population is the greatest during the summer.

“There is definitely a dynamic here in the Mississippi Sound as we see sharks when the water temperatures are warmer, so they start coming in around April,” she said. “When the temperatures start to cool, they go more offshore, so our catch numbers are significantly lower starting around October.”

Hendon said sharks can be found near the shore and near the barrier islands during the summer.

“The sharks go where the food is,” Hendon said.

Hendon and her associates at Gulf Coast Research Lab have been tagging sharks in the Sound in an effort to learn more about the predators.

“When we catch sharks, we determine the species and sex, measure and weigh them,” she said. “If they are in good condition, we will tag them prior to release.”

About 2,000 sharks are tagged annually, Hendon said.

Although sharks sit pretty close to the top of the fish food chain, they do face a huge threat from humans.

The dorsal fin of a shark is used in a soup that has become popular in the East. According to stopsharkfinning.net, about 8,000 tons of shark fins are consumed annually. Hendon said “finning” is a direct threat to the world’s population of sharks because of the way sharks breed.

“Instead of spawning and potentially having thousands of young like bony fish, many shark species carry their young internally until they are large enough to be ‘pupped’ and therefore they have fewer offspring than the bony fish,” she said. “This means that their generations do not turn over as quickly and populations are more prone to overfishing.”

Shark attacks in the Mississippi Sound are not a common occurrence. There has not been a recorded attack in the Sound since 1959, according to the University of Florida.

Hendon said sharks are sometimes misunderstood.

“I think the fear of sharks really stems from the love to sensationalize,” she said.

Hollywood, Hendon said, also has contributed to the irrational fear of sharks.

“Sharks have always been portrayed as valiant creatures and the book and movie ‘Jaws’ also played into this,” Hendon said. “I think most people find fascination in their fear after watching that film and I just hope that they also acknowledge that these movies were developed to elicit fear and that the reality is that sharks are integral to the health of our oceans.”

Hendon said catching a tagged shark in the Gulf is not a crime. Each tagged sharks has a unique ID number on the tag. Hendon said anyone who catches a tagged shark should call the lab at 228-872-4257.

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