The most anticipated week of wildlife programming is upon us via Discovery Channel and we are sure to see lots on great whites, bull sharks and other potentially dangerous creatures.
I want to start off with something different-the gentle giant of the Gulf of Mexico and other warm seas-the whale shark.
Here are five facts you probably did not about about these under appreciated beauties.
Fact #1: Whale sharks are filter feeders and a big part of what they eat are fish eggs. As spawning approaches on reefs and other fish-rich areas they have been documented waiting for the eggs to appear and then moving into gorge themselves.
Fact #2: Whale sharks hatch their own eggs inside their bodies. The mother will hatch out about 300 babies but very few make it to maturity. And even when they do it takes upwards of 25 years to be able to reproduce. That is why the death of a whale shark can have a big impact on the species.
Fact #3: Speaking of making babies, no one has ever observed whale sharks mating. Well, at least no one in the scientific community has. They spend a huge portion of their lives on the open sea where few eyes gaze upon them.
Fact #4: The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is the only facility with an opportunity to swim with captive whale sharks. They have four and a portion of what they make on the encounters goes to field conservation.
Since 2004, the Aquarium’s field research focused on the many whale sharks that visit the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, the largest gathering of its kind in the world.
“By using satellite tags, aerial surveys and photo identification software, Georgia Aquarium and its partners have studied and tracked over 1,000 whale sharks known to visit this area to feed on plankton and fish eggs every summer. The future focus for field research will be to explore connections to populations of whale sharks found in more remote places on Earth.”
Fact #5: Whale sharks sometimes beach themselves or enter shallow bays when sick. When I was eight years old, a medium-sized whale shark entered Sabine Lake, a bay on the Texas/Louisiana border near my home.
This is from United Press International in a story dated July 10, 1982.
A rotund 26-foot whale shark knicknamed ‘Gums’ died an unusual death in an oyster bed in Sabine Lake, a biology professor says.
Dave Bechler, Lamar University assistant biology professor, said Friday the shark was a rare find along the Texas coast because it does not normally inhabit Texas coastal waters.
‘There was probably something already wrong with it,’ he said. ‘Whales and whale sharks sometimes beach themselves. We really don’t know why they do that.’
Whale sharks are incredible creatures that deserve our adoration. They are certainly not frightening and get far fewer headlines than their carnivorous cousins. They are however the largest shark (and fish) in the ocean. That should count for something.
My first encounter with a blacktip shark came while soaking a big hunk of cut mullet behind a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
I will never forget seeing the streamlined fish burst from the water like a wayward rocket and achieve an almost marlin-like tail walk on the sandy green surface. To my fishing hosts, this was just another annoying shark but to this young angler it was an amazing moment.
These sharks are popular and important for sport anglers on the Gulf Coast, yet they are greatly misunderstood.
For starters, all “blacktips” are not necessarily blacktips.
Young bull sharks are sometimes mistaken for blacktips by novice anglers due to the black markings on their fins but on closer inspection, the rounded nose and bulldog like appearance of the bull is a striking contrast to the sleek blacktip.
The spinner shark however is much more difficult to differentiate from blacktips. In fact, many veteran anglers and biologists have a hard time telling the difference at first glance.
They are very similar in body shape and size and both are quite acrobatic when hooked although the spinner twists like a tornado as the name implies while blacktips do more straight jumps.
The best way to tell them apart is the anal fin on the spinner is black whereas the blacktips is not. In reality, the spinner has more black on its tips than the blacktip in most cases.
If you were to ask anglers if these species were dangerous, most would answer with a resounding “No” since they are not in the lexicon of deadly sharks.
In fact, the Discovery Channel produced a highly rated program about the top 10 most dangerous sharks and neither made the list, while both the oceanic whitetip and shortfin mako did.
Those species rank far below both the blacktip and spinner in terms of unprovoked attacks on humans according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
ISAF data show blacktips are responsible for 28 unprovoked attacks and 13 provoked attacks (think feeding, harassing, etc.). Spinners have been responsible for 15 unprovoked attacks, and one on the provoked side.
For comparison, the oceanic whitetip committed five unprovoked and three provoked attacks, while the shortfin mako dished out 8 unprovoked attacks and 15 provoked.
In the network’s defense, its list featured numerous factors, including fatalities, size, and likelihood to encounter humans, which would obviously put species like the great white above many other known attackers, but in terms of raw attack data, blacktips and spinners deserve our respect.
They are also species humans are likely to encounter in shallow water along beaches, where anglers tote stringers of speckled trout and other sport fishes, not to mention the scores of swimmers.
It is also possible blacktips and spinners are responsible for more attacks than ISAF can accurately list.
“Positive identification of attacking sharks is very difficult, since victims rarely make adequate observations of the attacker during the ‘heat’ of the interaction,” according to George H. Burgess of ISAF.
“Tooth remains are seldom found in wounds, and diagnostic characters for many requiem sharks (including blacktips and spinners) are difficult to discern even by trained professionals.
“Realistically, almost any shark in the right size range, roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters) or greater, is a potential threat to humans because, even if a bite is not intended as a directed feeding attempt on a human, the power of the jaw and tooth morphology can lead to injury.”
This does not mean you should start worrying about becoming a blacktips next meal. After all, shark attacks are rare no matter the species. However, you might want to give them a bit more respect because the statistics don’t lie.
Pictures of famous professional anglers like Rick Clunn and Larry Nixon holding beautiful, huge largemouth bass haunted my imagination. I thought the anglers I read about in the magazines were cool but those bass they held were at another level.
Those fish blew my mind.
At this point living near the coast, my freshwater fishing was limited to a gully down the road from my house. Me and other kids in the neighborhood had amazing times there catching garfish, grinnel and bullheads.
That’s all we caught though.
I brought down Creme plastic worms and Beetle Spins I bought at the local tackle shop but the only bites came from grinnel. None of us ever caught a single bass.
One day while fishing that gully, the tide brought in purple water. And I mean solid purple.
No fish bit that day.
I found out a local factory had been dumping plastic dye into the water along with other pollutants and the oxygen levels in the system were very low. Most fish could not live there and the bayou itself was named the most polluted in Texas.
A few months later I ventured down a couple of miles from the house on my bike and came across a rice canal that pumped clean water from the Sabine River into local fields. When I crossed over the levee and saw the water I was stunned. This water was clear like the footage I saw when tv pros Jimmy Houston or Bill Dance fished Florida.
Swimming slowly along the shoreline was a largemouth bass. It was a 4-5 pounder.
It looked like Moby Dick to me.
As I pondered the amazing sight, something clicked.
This water wasn’t dingy. It certainly wasn’t purple.
It was clear.
There was lots of vegetation growing and it had bass.
“There must be something to clean water and bass.”
From that day on I made the connection between water quality and quality fisheries.
And it obviously wasn’t just me that had a similar epiphany somewhere down the line.
Just the catch-and-release ethic birthed by bass fishing alone has changed fisheries worldwide.
“There is no doubt that live release of bass during tournaments has elevated the mindful conservation of fishery resources by anglers. Before B.A.S.S. introduced the ‘Don’t Kill Your Catch'” concept in 1972, bass were filleted and donated to the local communities,” said Bassmaster Editor James Hall.
“Once the mindset of catch and release became a part of the bass fishing culture, the management of the sport fish became a priority for both angler satisfaction and tourism industry. Now, the same conservation ethic has been established with other species: walleye, redfish, etc. The angling public sees the benefit of returning fish to the water so they can be caught again.”
Hall said working in the bass fishing industry has had a profound impact on his personal views of conservation.
“Working closely with our conservation director, Gene Gilliland, as well as having relationships with fisheries biologists throughout the country, I have developed a keen interest in water quality issues. I heard about the grass carp release at Lake Austin, which destroyed a killer largemouth fishery, and it makes me sick to my stomach,” Hall said.
“The controversy between “Big Sugar” and the water quality issues they have created below Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades sets a dangerous precedent. And I see a lot of great things, as well, like B.A.S.S. Nation groups adding artificial structures to lakes to improve bass recruitment.”
Pete Gluszek of The Bass Universitysaid their organization is focusing on environmental issues because they impact everyone.
“It’s important that we utilize The Bass University platform to bring attention to issues related to the health and advancement of our fisheries,” Gluszek said.
“There are all sorts of things from storm water runoff, pollution, watershed protection and habitat development, to name just a few that impact the resources that we depend on for great fishing.”
That includes hiring Craig Durand as their environmental director.
“I applaud Bass University’s vision and commitment to protect and improve the health of our lakes and rivers,” Durand said.
“We all live downstream, we all cherish our waters, and I look forward to supporting Bass University’s mission to improve our fisheries through education and community involvement.”
It’s a vision that virtually everyone in the bass fishing world has embraced whether they realize it or not and it has had a huge ripple effect.
I got reconnected with my personal “green” revelation a couple of years back.
I was asked to dive a private lake that had only been fished by family and inspect some of the deeper holes away from the shore.
When I approached a huge log, something moved out of the murk on the bottom into the clear water above.
It was a 10 pound class bass you can see in the clip above and when I locked eyes with it I was immediately transported back to that rice canal 30 years ago.
For some reason it looked like the exact same shade of green as the one that impacted me so profoundly. After shooting a quick video the bass disappeared and I would be lying if I said I didn’t return and flip a jig around that log a few times-unsuccessfully.
That encounter reinforced the importance of letting such a fish grow to maturity and it also reminded me without clean water and healthy habitat no fishery whether in a private lake or in the Gulf of Mexico can be sustained.
Over the years I have worked with numerous fisheries conservation projects, most notably southern flounder, but it all goes back to my first “green” encounter in a rice canal in West Orange, TX.
And with the fishing industry focused more than ever on water quality and healthy fish bag and size limits the future is bright.
Maybe it would be more proper to say the future is bright green or better yet “bass green”, the true color of conservation.
Yesterday our journey through the “Wild Gulf”-our summer long quest to raise awareness to wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico paid a visit to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) sea turtle facility at Galveston, TX.
Since 1978, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been participating in an international Sea Turtle recovery program. Currently the NMFS Galveston Sea Turtle Facility is participating in a variety of projects including injured and sick turtle rehabilitation, satellite tracking of wild turtles and numerous studies involving Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs).
We will post more on sea turtles later this month but for now here are some photos from yesterday.
One of the most dangerous of all sea creatures is the box jellyfish.
They are famously abundant in Australian waters where fatalities are reported on an annual basis.
They are also present in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the Gulf, we have the four-handed box jellyfish, a species I was made aware of by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist Jerry Mambretti in 2014.
“Our gulf sampling crew caught four-handed box jellyfish, Chiropsalmus quadrumanus, a member of the class Cubozoa, in 3 separate trawl samples about 2 miles off McFaddin NWR beach,” Mambretti said at the time.
“Box jellyfish are known for the extremely potent venom produced by some species, including this species, which is normally found in the west Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean. Their sting is very venomous and dangerous to humans, especially children.”
A study by William Guest noted the species has been known to be abundant in the Matagorda Bay system in the 1950s and their presence has a lot to do with salinity levels..
“The development of a large population coincided with drought conditions and high bay salinities along the Texas Gulf coast. When bay salinities dropped considerably in 1957 the jellyfish disappeared. The jellyfish were found to be living on or near the bottom at all times and preferred areas of soft mud.”
TPWD recommends for most jellyfish stings to splash the area with salt water.
“Then apply a paste of unseasoned meat tenderizer. Don’t press the skin. The pain should go away within an hour. Regular vinegar or a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water also work to alleviate pain.”
If you think you have been stung by a box jellyfish however seek medical attention immediately. Encounters are rare but the potential for serious problems exist if you do happen to bump into one of these tiny creatures.
Chester Moore, Jr.
Cutting-edge wildlife writings and investigations.