Wednesday, July 11, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Far from fleeing from them, researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are looking for — and finding — sharks in the waters off Virginia.

Sharks do not target humans as prey; in fact, results from the shark survey show man is a greater threat to sharks. Some species have been nearly wiped out to satisfy markets for shark-fin soup and other specialty products, said Dean Grubbs, a researcher at the institute.

He directs a yearly survey of sharks in Virginia waters that has led to protections for dusky, sand, night, bignose and white sharks during the 34 years he has been directing the survey.

Mr. Grubbs and a crew of graduate students recently went to sea before dawn to “boat” for sharks on the institute’s 65-foot-long research craft. The crew had buckets of large, J-shaped hooks and a metal frame with a net for hauling in the big sharks.

Boating sharks is not for the nervous. The biologists have to catch the sharks and haul them aboard to measure and tag them. “It’s all about controlling the mouth and knowing how different species react,” Mr. Grubbs said.

The researchers set a mile-long fishing line with 100 hooks spaced at regular intervals — a common commercial-fishing method known as longlining.

Four hours later, the crew returned to the first longline. They snagged the buoy at one end and began hauling the line with a winch. Mr. Grubbs stood at the rail with gaff in hand, wearing an old T-shirt picturing “Sharks of the World.”

A day earlier, the crew had caught 11 sharks, including five longer than 5 feet and two tigers young enough to bear dark stripes, which disappear with age. The largest shark ever caught in the survey was a tiger exceeding 13 feet.

But this time out, the Virginia Beach sites were slow. The first set of lines produced the toothy, 4-foot-long sand tiger. Mr. Grubbs gently measured and tagged the fish, then released it. Two small sharpnose sharks and three skates — ray fish — also were on the line.

The second set brought in eight more skates, three more small sharpnoses and an odd-looking 3-foot bonnethead shark. Mr. Grubbs said he couldn’t recall seeing a bonnethead this far north before.

Mr. Grubbs said the few sharks that were caught didn’t mean sharks were scarce in the water. Any single day could be a fluke. The numbers that matter are the ones compiled over the years for hundreds of sets at the same time and place. Those show shifts in the shark population.

After a brief return to the dock, the boat headed back out, ready to set the next longline off Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

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