Over the past 50 years, oceanic shark stocks have declined by over 70% (Pacoureau et al., 2021). Their life-history traits e.g., slow growth rates and long generation times make sharks susceptible to over-exploitation. As a result, three-quarters of oceanic shark species are now threatened with extinction. By-catch from commercial fisheries has been a major driver of shark stock depletion. The direct targeting of sharks for the fin trade and recreational sports fisheries has contributed to further population declines (Skomal et al., 2007; Dulvy et al., 2014). Recreational fishing encompasses all leisure fishing activities that are not carried out for commercial purposes. This includes boat-based and shore-based fishing, in addition to sport fishing; an example of recreational fishing whereby anglers use rod and reel to catch sharks. Whilst most recreational anglers employ ‘catch and release’ procedures, shark populations can still experience the negative effects of this practice, both physically and physiologically. Research within recreational fisheries receives little attention relative to commercial fishing; consequently, whilst the role of this practice is both a possible threat to shark populations and an opportunity to support shark research and conservation, the latter is often overlooked.
Any detrimental impacts of recreational fishing can be mitigated by developing relationships with anglers in order to understand angler’s perceptions towards sharks, alongside the drivers behind shark angling, and how their participation is crucial to the species success. The relationship between anglers and sharks is important to understand since angler’s perceptions influence their fishing behaviour and ultimately the survival of the sharks they seek whilst angling. Sustainable catch-and-release fisheries can provide an opportunity to engage with sharks at sea, thus potentially creating advocates for shark conservation.
Anglers’ perceptions have previously been analysed in social science studies across the United States and Australia. These studies originated in the late 70s when public feelings were that of fear and hatred towards sharks. The release of Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ saw the widespread rise of fishing clubs and tournaments dedicated to hunting a ‘man-eating shark’. At the time it was assumed that anglers were motivated by the danger involved with targeting top predators and so aimed to hunt down as many sharks as possible. However, it was proved that the majority of anglers perceived sharks with admiration and respect, unlike the perceptions of the general public at the time.
Images: Sam Matthews @matthas_diver
The United Kingdom (UK) has also been identified as a popular location for shark angling, however, there is currently no published literature detailing anglers’ perceptions towards sharks around the UK. This is where we got the idea for my masters research. Blue sharks Prionace glauca are one of only a few pelagic shark species inhabiting UK waters and are the most common species caught by anglers. Despite having a global conservation status of ‘Near Threatened’ (IUCN, Red List), the most recent analysis of blue shark population change in the North Atlantic is likely to be ‘Endangered’ (Rigby et al. 2019). There is also limited knowledge on the extent of recreational blue shark fishing around the UK. This is a concern given their ambiguous stock status and unknown mortality rates for blue sharks upon release. Therefore, there was a need to evaluate how anglers presently perceive shark fishing to inform potential conservation actions for the future – such as data collection, participation in tagging programmes, modifications to fishing operations, development of guidelines on fishing behaviour, changes to fishing advertisement or industry shifts to less invasive practices (e.g., swim-with programmes).
The aim of my research was to understand the socio-cultural relationship between recreational sea anglers and blue sharks around the UK. This research was carried out in collaboration with researchers from the University of Portsmouth, Scotland’s Rural College, University of Oxford and MARECO. To understand this relationship, the perceptions of shark angling operators were examined, alongside their fishing activity and the drivers behind this practice. This was followed by understanding the opinions, perceptions and beliefs of tourist anglers. How tourist demographics influenced their perceptions towards sharks was also examined. These objectives were achieved via structured questionnaires distributed to recreational anglers around the UK.
Preliminary findings indicate that anglers around the UK share a positive appreciation for blue sharks. Further analysis of this data is currently in progress, so stay tuned for updates and what this could mean for blue shark conservation.