The U.S. protects alpha predators, but its most famous shark hunter isn't out of business yet | Popular Science
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The U.S. protects alpha predators, but its most famous shark hunter isn't out of business yet

Sportsmen like Mark the Shark adjust to the era of catch-and-release deep-sea fishing.

Standing still is apparently no way to hook a shark. On a sunny Tuesday in May, I’m with Mark Quartiano, a fishing charter captain who unabashedly catches and kills these marine predators. We’re 5 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida’s coast aboard Striker-1, his 50-foot vessel, and prospects are good. The spring months usually yield great catches, so long as I don’t buck superstition.

“Don’t be a mannequin,” he says. “Move around. It’s bad luck not to.”

Andrew in fishing boat seat

The writer and his catch: an 8-foot scalloped hammerhead.

Courtesy of Andrew Zaleski

Soon, Ryan Wallach, Quartiano’s fishing buddy since 1996, rushes to the stern, where a resting fishing rod has just dipped, the telltale sign a shark’s on the line. Looking at me, Wallach shouts, “Get in the chair!” — an elevated, cushioned seat with a footrest for bracing oneself when wrestling large ocean creatures. I scramble up as he moves the heavy-duty rod from the stern to the chair, hooking it into place in front of me. I have 1,500 meters of tough nylon to work with, and for the next 20 minutes, I steadily reel it in, until the outline of an 8-foot hammerhead peeks through the water’s surface.

“Scalloped hammerhead,” Quartiano says, pointing out the indents in the cephalofoil, the term for its flattened, tool-shaped skull. Then he reaches into the water, grabs the shark’s head, and hauls it onto the deck.

Better known as Mark the Shark, Quartiano might be America’s most famous seafaring hunter. He’s operated his charter business since 1976, hooking and killing, by his estimate, at least 50,000 sharks. Clients as varied as Clint Eastwood and the Jacksonville Jaguars cheerleaders call him if they want a set of jaws, a trophy catch to mount, or just an adrenaline-packed excursion. Some 120,000 people follow his exploits on Instagram. Quartiano, 64, says he’d like nothing better than to hand the whole thing over to his son, Maverick, now 12, when he’s ready to retire.

But Quartiano’s way of life might be as threatened as the creatures he’s famous for catching. A recent university study concluded that perhaps 100 million sharks die annually worldwide, with commercial fishing the leading culprit. Yet in U.S. waters over the past few years, recreational angling — in tournaments, by solo enthusiasts, and on charter boats like Quartiano’s — emerged as the bigger hazard to the larger varieties: From 2012 to 2016, recreational fishing of sharks averaged 3.8 million pounds per year, compared to commercial fishing, which averaged 3.4 million pounds per year, according to NOAA Fisheries, an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency counts six species as overfished, meaning their numbers are depleted: blacknose, dusky, porbeagle, sandbar, shortfin mako, and, as I later discovered, scalloped hammerhead.

Some sharks are endangered, and many more are in trouble. That’s led state and federal agencies that regulate fishing to increase rules aimed at rebuilding diminished populations and protecting others. Maintaining stable stocks is crucial for delicate marine ecosystems, which need large predators to keep the food chain in balance. In recent years, a schism has formed within the recreational fishing community between conservationists who strictly catch and release sharks and people like Quartiano, who refuses to throw off the hunter’s mantle. “I’m the Darth Vader of the fishing world,” he says unapologetically.

 

The popularity of shark fishing as a pastime can be traced back to a man and a movie.

The man was the late Frank Mundus. A charter captain from Montauk, New York, he ran shark-hunting expeditions and popularized the phrase “monster fishing” in the 1960s. The movie was Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster in which a great white terrorizes a sleepy summer beach town until an expedition led by the colorful captain Quint — widely thought to be modeled on Mundus — kills the behemoth.

Recreational shark hunting exploded after Jaws. Like Mundus, Quartiano got his start on Montauk, hooking a thresher shark when he was around 8 years old. In 1964, when he was 10, he moved to South Florida to join his father after his parents divorced. He started doing charter excursions post-Jaws in the late ’70s, often running two trips a day. Around this time, kill tournaments, in which anglers caught dozens of the fish and received cash prizes for bagging the biggest, proliferated along America’s coasts. For five straight years starting in 1979, Quartiano competed in and won the Marathon Jaycees World Championship Shark Tournament off the Florida Keys.

Today Quartiano’s pace has slowed slightly: 450 trips annually. Because of regulations, he now mostly catches and releases his quarry, mailing information about its physical characteristics to NOAA Fisheries after tagging the fish with a plastic dart, a signal to other anglers that it has been previously caught. Some of his customers are happy with that same outcome; for others, the kill is the thrill, as it remains for Quartiano. “I can kill a shark a trip, which I normally do,” he says. “It all depends on the client — the client decides.”

 

Obsessing over sharks as toothy commodities ignores their great variety, as well as the important role they play in marine ecosystems. There are about 450 species, ranging in size from cigar to school bus. There’s a direct correlation between the health of coral reefs, the diversity and abundance of the marine life they support, and the presence of apex predators. Pull out all the sharks, and midsize fish species will flourish, overfeeding on smaller swimmers that act as reef cleaners. Moreover, sharks typically feast on weaker or sicker members of schools, in effect culling out disease and encouraging a more robust ecosystem.

After Jaws, commercial shark fishing increased too, as demand grew for shark meat and fins to be used for fillets and shark fin soup. Finning is illegal now, but oil from shark livers still ends up in everyday products such as cosmetics and sunscreen. By the late 1980s, surveys began to show the toll on the bigger species. One annual survey by the Virginia Shark Monitoring and Assessment Program showed they had been “severely depleted between the late 1970s and the early 1990s.” In 1993, NOAA Fisheries released its first management plan, including commercial and recreational regulations designed to end overfishing and rebuild stocks.

The agency subsequently tweaked the rules for commercial outfits, which had been catching sharks by the hundreds using longlines dropped deep into the ocean. In 1999, it began requiring commercial operations in the Atlantic Ocean to obtain a specific limited permit. The agency issued only 287, and no new ones have been granted since; as of 2017, the number had dropped to 221 due to permit holders leaving the industry. In addition, NOAA Fisheries has also implemented rules on how many sharks can be kept on each commercial trip. For example, NOAA revised the limit earlier this year from 25 sharks per vessel per trip to just three.

“We’ve been doing more assessments and getting a better handle on the status of fisheries,” says Enric Cortes, a NOAA Fisheries biologist, using the term for areas of the ocean where sharks are caught. He notes the agency nowadays has a better sense of which species are sustainably managed compared to the ones that are overfished.

The regulations, he says, have worked, over time reducing the number of sharks killed. Still, the largest of them remain in trouble due to the volume of recreational angling.

 

Sport fishing boomed throughout the 1980s, when prevailing sentiment dictated the only good shark was a dead one. Charter-boat businesses and kill tournaments enjoyed increasing success. Miami media especially loved chronicling the feats of Mark the Shark. Quartiano became a local celebrity. In turn, he attracted the attention of national celebrities — Robert De Niro, Shaquille O’Neal, Ice-T — keen to catch their own sharks.

The negative effects were overlooked, but in 2005, a study estimated that recreational catches of large coastal sharks were greater than commercial catches in 15 of the 21 years that encompassed 1981 through 2001.

Shaquille O'Neal and "Mark the Shark" Quartiano

Quartiano's celebrity client list includes Shaquille O'Neal, at right.

In tournaments and on charter trips, the biggest sharks commanded the most attention. But culling the big ones harms breeding populations. Most sharks only reach sexual maturity late in life; even then, they produce few offspring, a problem for such a slow-growing species.

Regulators have increasingly turned their attention to the impact of recreational fishing. Since 1999, NOAA Fisheries has required all shark tournaments to register a month in advance. Contest operators also keep records of anglers and the fish they catch, and there are rules about which species can be kept. And starting this year, the agency requires circle hooks — rounded hooks that curve backward — for commercial and recreational use alike. The traditional J-shaped type often sticks in the fish’s gut or gills, shredding tissue, whereas the circle version usually stays put in a shark’s maw. Recreational anglers must also watch a video online that teaches them to identify the 21 species of sharks that are illegal to keep. That’s all in addition to the federal permits someone like Quartiano must hold in order to run his business.

The upshot of all these mandates? “As a whole, sharks are not overfished,” says Karyl Brewster-Geisz, a branch chief of the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management division within NOAA Fisheries.

Attitudes seem to have shifted along with the rules. Since the advent of educational programs like those in the mix on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, celebrating its 30th anniversary this week, conservation has become a buzzword, and catch-and-release is the new norm. Some tournaments even ask competitors to release all sharks and take photographs instead, or to bring only one fish above a certain weight back to the dock.

David Conway, managing editor of Florida Sportsman magazine, describes the change as twofold: Today’s recreational anglers are more concerned about the sustainability of shark species and simultaneously turned off by wanton killing — of any fish. “The idea of manhandling beasts is vintage Hemingway, but it’s been a century since Hemingway’s time, and the vast majority of recreational anglers have moved beyond that motivation,” he says.

Attitudinally, says Terry Gibson, of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a group of commercial and recreational associations concerned about overfishing, “the Mark the Sharks of the world are dinosaurs.”

Sentiment had already shifted significantly by 2005, the year Quartiano, his trademark brashness on display, distributed a photo of himself lying on top of four dead sharks he had hauled onto Striker-1. It was the sort of photo that once won him acclaim. Instead, several weeks later, the Miami Herald asked if Quartiano was a hero or a butcher.

Customers leave him glowing reviews on TripAdvisor. But elsewhere online, voices are more critical. On the boating and fishing forum The Hull Truth, an entire thread is dedicated to Mark the Shark. “Seems like he kills every shark he catches,” writes one user. Another writes: “He’s much maligned on Florida Sportsman forum and among the fishing community in south Florida. a real POS.”

Quartiano bites back. “It’s all bullshit, man,” he says. “It’s totally fake news. I’m one guy. One guy can’t make a dent in the population. Do you know I tag more sharks than anybody in the world? Probably 400 in the last year.”

It’s true he does afford his prey a degree of respect. Last December, three Florida men were charged with animal cruelty for dragging a shark behind their boat. They had sent video of their encounter to Quartiano, assuming he would be impressed. Instead, he posted the video on Instagram and denounced the brutality. “For once I may have to agree with @PETA,” he wrote, referring to the animal rights organization.

 

The last I saw of our scalloped hammerhead, it was swimming in the Atlantic, diving down beneath the hull of Striker-1. Because it was longer than 78 inches and pulled from federal waters, we could have legally kept it. Instead, we measured, tagged, and released it. Afterward, Quartiano filled out a card with the female shark’s length to mail to NOAA Fisheries, along with details on the tag now attached to it.

On the way back to shore, Wallach cracks me a cold 16-ounce Miller High Life, my reward for a good catch. Then he says dolefully, “In 10 to 15 years, this won’t exist anymore.”

Mark the Shark Quartiano

"Mark the Shark" Quartiano in his Miami office.

Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Wallach is talking about angling in general, let alone fishing for sharks, a sentiment his sporting companion appears to share. “It’s not the way it was years ago,” Quartiano says. “There was a lot of fish around, and a lot of people who wanted to fish. Now only a few people want to.”

When it comes to shark hunting, well, cultural forces aren’t aligned with Quartiano. Bagging the big one, not in a tournament or to eat, but rather to mount as a trophy — a testament to man’s dominion over nature — is going away.

“I make great money, and Maverick can just step right into it if he wants to do it,” Quartiano says. “But it’s not the way it was. Back in the day, there were hundreds of boats out this time of year. It’s a dying business, for sure.”

At his Miami office near the docks, Quartiano takes a seat behind a cluttered desk covered with stacks of printed photos, of customers posing with sharks they caught, that he needs to mail. Surrounding him are dozens of shark jaws that hang from the ceiling like nightmarish wind catchers. Whether Maverick occupies that seat someday depends on there being a new generation of customers awaiting its chance to go fishing for a monster.

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