- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

Commercial fishermen, the Libertarian Party and others concerned about government interference are accusing a federal program to protect sharks of contributing to a rise in shark attacks off the Florida coast in recent years.

"I think shark populations are growing in the United States. I think conservation measures are working. And if you have more sharks interacting with people, it stands to reason you're going to have more people being hit," said Russell Hudson, spokesman for the Directed Shark Fishery Association.

Mr. Hudson also is a plaintiff in a lawsuit aimed at blocking the National Marine Fisheries Service from imposing the second major reduction in shark fishing since 1993.

"As amazing as it sounds, politicians appear to have created a federal program that increases the likelihood of shark attacks," said Steve Dasbach, national director of the Libertarian Party. "In an effort to protect one species, politicians have endangered another one — human beings."

But the National Marine Fisheries Service denies both that shark populations are increasing and that its efforts to curtail shark fishing are responsible for more shark attacks on humans. The service blames humans for encroaching on shark habitat.

"The single most important factor to which we can attribute this perceived rise [in attacks] is that there is more interaction between sharks and people as a result of more aquatic recreation and more coastal growth," said Chris Smith, a spokesman for the service in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Karyl Brewster-Geisz, a spokeswoman for the fisheries service, portrays sharks as the true victims in most encounters with humans.

"Thousands or millions of sharks are killed by people every year. But very few people are killed by sharks," she said.

There have been at least 28 shark attacks off New Smyrna Beach, Fla., this year — nearly two-thirds of the total reported worldwide. Sharks attacked nine persons off New Smyrna Beach last week alone.

In July, an 8-year-old Mississippi boy's arm was severed, and he lost nearly all his blood in an attack by a bull shark in Pensacola on Florida's Gulf Coast. The child survived, and his arm was reattached.

Sean Paige, a Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, suggests "more than happenstance" may account for the rash of shark attacks off the Florida coast.

In an article titled "The Jaws of Government," published on National Review Online, Mr. Paige wonders if the "sudden, shocking return of the shark" might not be linked to the government's program to "rebuild" shark populations.

Using data from the International Shark Attack File, he noted that unprovoked "shark attacks last year reached record levels in the world (79), in the U.S. (49), and in Florida (34 documented cases)."

That's happening, he said, "even as scientists and government officials are claiming that the animals are being chased toward extinction by fishermen looking for thrill kills."

Florida's shark-bite total in 2000 is well on its way to being broken this year in the waters off New Smyrna Beach alone. However, Mr. Smith of the fisheries service says: "Scientists tell me this year will probably be nothing worse than an average year. Attacks have just been more widely publicized."

As for shark populations, a federal report says the stock of sandbar, blacktip, great hammerhead, tiger and other large coastal sharks plunged from nearly 9 million to 1.4 million in the waters off the eastern United States from 1974 to 1998. The same report identifies three sharks — grey nurse sharks, dusky sharks and night sharks — as candidates for the endangered species list.

The National Marine Fisheries Service says the dwindling populations of sharks cannot recover without further quota reductions.

Further reductions in permissible shark fishing are in the offing, if an independent peer-review panel upholds the recommendations of a National Marine Fisheries Service consulting panel.

But Bob Spaeth, executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association and the owner of four fishing boats that work the Gulf of Mexico, says many shark fishermen would already be out of business had a court injunction not blocked implementation of the panel's 1998 "stock assessment."

Mr. Spaeth also doesn't buy that shark populations are dwindling.

"Shrimpers out of Texas and Georgia say their nets are getting eaten by sharks" going after their catches, "and shark fishermen say they are seeing more sharks," he said in a telephone interview yesterday from Madeira Beach, Fla.

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