More than 70 species of shark occur in the Gulf of Mexico and along the U.S. Atlantic coast. Of those, we catch over a dozen large and small coastal species during the bottom longline population survey I’m participating in with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Here are five of the species we commonly spot:
Atlantic Sharpnose Shark
This small shark is the most commonly caught species during our survey because it is ubiquitous in this region. In the right depths, it is not uncommon for us to catch around 50 of these small sharks per set of 100 hooks.
Population status: Due to their abundance in the western North Atlantic, their population status is not considered to be of great concern. Apart from humans, Atlantic sharpnose sharks also have other, larger sharks to fear as predators.
These sharks are often preying on small sharpnoses caught on our hooks. Sandbar sharks are the most abundant large coastal sharks in the western Atlantic, reaching lengths of up to 7.5 feet. They are among the more feisty species we catch; you really have to watch out for those razor-sharp teeth.
After leaving their shallow-water nursery areas, juvenile sandbar sharks spend a few years migrating between nearshore and offshore areas in schools. On this trip, we seemed to have found one of those sandbar schools off the coast of Florida. We had one set with an abnormally large amount of roughly 5-foot sandbar sharks, when normally we only catch a couple of them per set, at most.
Population status: Sandbar sharks are currently classified as overfished by NOAA, and while the population is increasing slowly due to rebuilding measures, it is not expected to be recovered until the year 2070.
Scalloped Hammerhead Shark
One of our favorite species to see is the magnificent scalloped hammerhead. These sharks reach lengths of up to 14 feet. By their physical appearance you would not guess it, but hammerheads are surprisingly fragile when caught on a hook or in a net. They usually don’t fight back much by the time they are brought to the boat, and we know when we catch one, we have to work fast if we want to get it back in the water alive.
Population status: These sharks are highly desired for the shark fin trade and have become quite rare in the western Atlantic and around the world. They are considered overfished by NOAA and were recently included under CITES appendix II, resulting in monitoring and special permitting requirements for international trade.
Another one of my favorites is the tiger shark. At lengths of up to 17 feet, tiger sharks are one of the largest shark species in the world. The ones we commonly catch on the bottom longline survey range from pups of just over a foot long to juveniles and young adults up to about 8 feet, but occasionally we do catch bigger specimens. My crew had a particularly large tiger on the hook the other day, but the sea was too rough for us to cradle it, so we had to cut it loose without measuring or tagging it. The tiger shark is a voracious predator that also doesn’t refuse human garbage such as license plates and old tires.
Population status: The status of tiger sharks in U.S. waters is currently unknown because there has not been a scientific assessment of the tiger shark population. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies tiger sharks globally as near threatened.
There is one species of smooth-hound on the Atlantic side, the smooth dogfish, and there are three in the Gulf of Mexico. Two of the three Gulf species, the smooth dogfish and the Gulf smooth-hound, can be identified only by looking at the shape of their denticles, the small, tooth-like scales that cover a shark’s body and give it the feel of sandpaper. We have to take dermal skin plug samples from any smooth-hounds we catch in the Gulf to identify it to the species level later in the lab.
Population status: On the Atlantic side, a considerable fishery for these small sharks has developed over the past two years, and questionable exceptions were made in the fin requirements of the Shark Conservation Act for the smooth dogfish fishery. Even though smooth dogfish mature relatively early and have large litter sizes (between 4 and 20 pups) for shark standards, they are still vulnerable to overexploitation, like all sharks, and must be managed with care.