Fishing Lines: Shark saviours offer more hope for tope

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The Independent Online

I once caught a shark off the breakwater at Meva-gissey. Strolling trippers stopped in amazement as the 60lb fish rose from the depths. As well they might; Cornish sharks are generally caught several miles from land, not in the middle of a busy harbour.

Unfortunately, it did not qualify me for a Cornish shore record. That's because the shark had been dead for about a week. You may wonder how it took my bait. It didn't. My hook caught in the tip of its pointy nose.

An amusing moment, but there's a far less chucklesome aspect. That shark had been caught by one of the many boats that offered "the thrill of a lifetime" fishing for small blue sharks. On tackle strong enough to tow a trawler, the sharks stood little chance. They were taken back to harbour, ceremonially weighed with the proud captor alongside, then quietly chucked back into the sea, dead.

It was an appalling waste. People assumed sharks were the killers of the sea (and maybe they are if you get reincarnated as a mackerel). They're still trying to live down the Jaws stuff.

One organisation, Save Our Sharks, have gone even further than discouraging anglers from killing blue sharks for a needless trophy. They have set up a tag-and-release scheme which has worked so well that it has logged more than 5,000 sharks. So far, 50 have been recaptured; one was caught a mile away, another south of the Equator.

SOS have also played a key role in getting large common skate returned unharmed (they are tagged for a research programme by Glasgow University to trace their movements and growth). They are even trying to make anglers be nice to dogfish (a fish generally preceded by the word pesky, or something stronger). It's a bit like trying to love Pol Pot.

The group's latest campaign involves protecting tope, a sharky-looking fish that rarely grows to more than 50lb. SOS are encouraging anglers to write to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in an effort to get tope designated as Europe's first recreational species.

They are under threat from commercial fishermen, who have raped the seas of traditional species like cod and now want to start on what were once considered trash fish. The tope won't even be eaten; their fins will be cut off and exported to the Asian market. What's left will probably be used as bait in crab pots, or just dumped overboard.

Defra, who like to keep things simple, have offered three tick boxes: do nothing; allow only rod- and-line fishing; or ban all tope fishing. Whether trawlers would take much notice of the latter may be a moot point. But they may have to. Researchers at the Guy Harvey Research Institute in Florida have developed DNA tests that can identify material from shark species in hours. No good saying that the fins are from whiting or flounders: these chaps can tell straight away.

One Florida boat has just been fined $750,000 (£400,000) for having bags of illegal appendages. Fins ain't what they used to be.

www.save-our-sharks.org.

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