Experts offer advice on avoiding Texas sharks

July 6, 2011 5:28:33 AM PDT
They're out there. But don't worry too much; you aren't their prey.

In fact, as is frequently said of various poisonous snakes, spiders and other scary creepy crawlies, sharks probably are more afraid of you than you are of them.

And they are not looking to bite you, said Jerry Mambretti of Texas Parks and Wildlife marine fisheries lab in Port Arthur.

"They will bite, but they are not aggressive," he said.

Just ask Beaumont fisherman Damian Diaz.

Diaz, 45, and some of his relatives caught an 8-foot bull shark while surf fishing about a mile west of Rollover Pass on Bolivar Peninsula on Sunday.

"It's the biggest one we've ever put on the beach," Diaz said proudly. He "guesstimated" the massive shark's weight at around 300 pounds.

"Three grown men couldn't get it anywhere near off the water," he said.

But despite its size and sharp teeth, Diaz did not feel particularly threatened.

In his experience, as long as you keep your extremities away from its biting end and watch for its thrashing tail when landing a shark, danger is minimal.

"It can smack you real good with the tail if you're not paying attention," he cautioned.

Back in March, an 8-foot mako shark leaped into a fishing boat off the Texas coast near Freeport.

Shark populations have been on the rise in recent years, wildlife officials say.

"Twenty-five years ago we would see one or two in the course of a season," Mambretti said. "Now we're seeing 30 to 40."

Lance Robinson, upper coast regional director of Texas Parks and Wildlife coastal fisheries division, explained that the increasing shark population likely reflected more restrictive regulations designed to protect them from over-fishing.

"Sharks have always been pretty abundant along the coast," he said. "I think it's a little surprising to people when they realize how prevalent they are in coastal waters."

Female sharks are drawn to the coastal bays made by barrier islands as "pupping grounds" -- in other words, a good place to give birth to their young.

"They like the calmer, protected waters -- they are prime nursery areas for juvenile sharks," Robinson said.

Sharks are scavengers of the seas, who look for ailing or recently deceased fish to feed on.

However, biologists speculate that humans who are bitten by sharks might have accidentally sent the wrong message to the shark.

Robinson explained that sharks are on the alert for the flashing sides and erratic movements that indicate a fish in distress.

Swimmers are advised not to wear shiny jewelry that might mimic this effect in the turbid waters of the surf.

In fact, a girl who was bitten on the ankle one summer near Galveston was wearing shiny toenail polish, which was thought might have enticed the small shark out looking for a snack.

Robinson said other tips include staying out of the water if a lot of fish are jumping out -- something under the surface is causing that behavior, and though it might not be a shark, do you really want to put it to the test?

He said the early morning and late afternoon tend to be the times when most people are bitten, because that is when the sharks, which are crepuscular (meaning they are most active during these low-light times of day) most often feed.

The shark caught by Diaz and his family was released back into the Gulf after the group snapped a few photos to commemorate the catch.

"I let my brother-in-law reel it in," he said. "He's still on cloud nine."

Like the biologists, Diaz knows what lurks beneath the ocean's surface.

"You just don't see them -- they're everywhere," he said.

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