An unexpected find in the Sea of Cortez   Leave a comment

A few days ago I went out snorkeling with my friend Mauricio Hoyos. He is a shark researcher based in La Paz. He has a number of projects on the go including a distribution study on Great White Sharks at Guadalupe Island. From September through December each year he camps on the remote island west of Ensenada to track white shark movements and document predations from his little panga. It is a lonely and sometimes unrewarding project but he is fanatically dedicated to the task.

When he is back in La Paz he spends his time writing proposals for funding and finding creative ways to finance his work. He is also studying the movements of Scalloped hammerheads in the shallow bays north of La Paz. Mauricio thinks that the area is a nursery ground for this species and the sharks probably stay there for a long time before moving out to a more pelagic environment. If he is right then his work may lead to stricter regulations for the fishermen that long line along the coast.

To track the baby hammerheads Mauricio goes out with the long liners. If they bring up a live scalloped hammerhead shark he implants an archival tag into the torso of the animal and releases it. The tag records temperature and depth information which can be analyzed later (if the animal is caught again) to estimate the sharks movements.

Mauricio invited me to join him on one of these trips and we spent the day north of La Paz with a couple of local shark fishermen. It was tough to watch them work. They did not have much success but all of the little sharks (none were longer than one meter) that they did bring up were already dead. Some shark lovers may have reservations about a shark photographer and outspoken conservationist working among shark fishermen but I believe that I did not contribute to or encourage the deaths of any sharks and the understanding that I gained about the shark fishing industry will stand me in good stead for future arguments. In the words of the warrior philosopher Lao Tzu “Know your enemy”.

We waited on the panga while they slowly pulled in their lines. They brought up a couple of tiny Pacific sharpnose sharks and then the line began to jerk and spin. The fisherman pulling it in indicated that something big was coming up so I slipped into the water with my camera and stared down at green nothing. The Sea of Cortez is heavily laced with plankton and visibility rarely opens up. A pinkish blur solidified below me and swam in agitated spirals around the line.

Mauricio had told me that the long liners sometimes catch rayas violaceas but I had never heard of Violet Rays and nothing fitting that description was in any of my local fish i.d. guides. Once the ray was close enough to see it clearly I recognized it as a Pelagic stingray Pteroplatytrygon violacea.

It is a unique animal among stingrays because unlike other whiptail stingays it swims in open water instead of hiding under the sand.

It is rarely if ever encountered by divers. I have never seen one and thought that I never would so I was thrilled to get the chance to see it in action but wondered what the fishermen would do with it. I assumed that they would add it to the catch which was piling up in the bottom of the panga but they carefully pulled it along side and removed the hook without causing it too much damage. The ray turned and flapped quite slowly back into the green. I gave chase for a few kicks and then let it go.

The unexpected care with which the fishermen released the ray was quite surprising and it made me think a little harder about who they are. Their job is certainly destructive to the environment and devastating to the future of sharks but I believe that they mostly do not fully comprehend or believe this. They are proud fishermen that have chosen to fish for sharks and consider themselves no different from other hard working fishermen. As we watched them set their lines they told us about some of the strange creatures that they have encountered over the years like the 5 meter long oarfish that swam by one day. It is clear that at least some of them are just as fascinated by the wonders of the ocean as I am but they choose to exploit its resources where as I believe that the ocean has given up too much of its wealth already.

Change does not always come from forced legislation or a big stick. Sometimes the most productive change comes from subtle discussions intended not to offend but to educate. So, I will go out with these fishermen again if Mauricio invites me and perhaps in time we will have a chance to discuss why their shark catches are dwindling and what they can do to help shark stocks recover.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

shark pictures

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