Sharks were as common as driftwood after a storm in the early days of the Monterey, and just as dangerous. Not because they would attack, but because unwary boaters would collide with them.
The seas were alive with shark stories, according to Sean Van Sommeran, 48, the founder of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation (PSRF).
President Teddy Roosevelt even paid a visit to take part in a hunt of Basking sharks – harpooning them like whales and getting pulled along for a ride. It was called a Nantucket sleigh ride back East when it was legal to do it to whales.
At a lecture on shark conservation at UCSC Wednesday night, Van Sommeran expressed that as a young fisherman, however, Van Sommeran was afraid that he came into the sport at the end of its glory days.
"I would talk to these old timers and hear about this time when you would go out and see all this stuff that they would just take for granted, which have now been recognized as rare and valuable," he told the shark-bitten audience.
“You've missed it, kid,” the old shark fishermen would tell him, talking like old buffalo hunters. "The attitude was that they had already forgot more about the sea than I would ever learn."
But he was hooked on a love of the sea and its life. Van Sommeran grew up long-range tuna fishing in and around the Monterey Bay, and sees his skill as a shark researcher as a natural progression from his earlier career – fishing with an eye towards conservation of sea life rather than exploitation.
“If I had practical business sense, I would be retired by now,” he says of his former fishing prowess.
To get a feel for the past abundance of the Monterey Bay, Van Sommeran recommends taking a trip to Gilda's restaurant on the wharf and examining the old-time fishing photos hanging on the walls.
In 1990, when Van Sommeran founded the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, there was absolutely no regulation protecting sharks, which were seen as a nuisance to the boaters and jet skiers who would collide with them, as well as a burden on the fishing practices of the area.
Every year a shark and ray killing contest was sponsored by local fishermen in Elkhorn slough, the justification being that removing sharks from the top of the food chain would allow people to continue the practice of over-fishing in the slough.
“The fisher to kill the individual specimen, and/or the largest stack of dead things would get a prize, like an outboard motor or something like that .”
Perception of sharks was generally that they were a waste creature, to be exploited for their fins and oil or just simply better off dead.
“You could go out there perfectly legally with a shotgun and say 'watch this!'--- and BOOM!”
Van Sommeran saw all this as “an underlying, ongoing disaster. Compared to how the old timers talked about how fishing once was, I realized that at this rate there wont be anything left. ”
Van Sommeran founded the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation with the dual goal of activism aimed at alleviating the human impact on sharks and their ecosystems, as well as bolstering the shark research field with empirical data which was severely lacking at the time. He was largely told by the big shots in the field that he was wasting his time.
Van Sommeran sees his job of shark conservation is an uphill battle because the public is afraid of sharks, and largely without a good reason.
"The whole understanding of sharks is all backwards and sideways. If you were in the woods and were to 'yell the word 'Cat!' no one would react – no one thinks you meant 'Lion!' But you go the beach and yell the world 'Shark!', however, and thats a whole different story.”
There are 500 kinds of sharks, and only a few are dangerous to humans, not counting rays and skates, which Van Sommeran calls 'flattened sharks, basically the same creature adapted for slightly different environments ”
“I've gotten the most injuries from a bat ray,” said Van Sommeran, a fact which is surprising considering that he is bold enough to touch the nose of a great white shark as it passes his boat. See the recommended photos if you don't believe it.
Sharks are the world's first truly jawed vertebrae, and have not only survived four major extinction events, but have maintained incredible adaptive integrity over millions of years. Van Sommeran calls sharks a 'poor man's time machine,' because they are living examples of creatures recognizable all the way down the fossil record.
Over the years, the PSRF has allocated enormous amounts of data on sharks, and have had a great deal of success changing public opinion about the creatures.
“When we first started out it was very much a conservation organization that did research, and as time went on and we were able to defeat these various issues like the shark archery event, shark chumming, and shark hunting on the bay with the help of the Surfrider Foundation. As the West was tamed, so to speak, we were able to focus more and more on research efforts as opposed to activism.”
The foundation is currently involved in three long-term shark monitoring programs, of white sharks off Ano Nuevo Point, sharks in and around the Monterey Bay, and estuarine sharks in Elkhorn Slough. Van Sommeran was the first to tag and monitor basking sharks in the Monterey Bay.
The PSRF also has a standing and collecting unit which is involved in “rescuing, if possible, or collecting the specimen if it has scientific value.”
Things have gone a long way since the days when shark archery contests were held in Elkhorn Slough; people's behavior towards sharks has changed so much since the early 90's that Van Sommeran says “its a different environment entirely than when we founded (the PSRF) in 1990.”
People care now about the creatures. If they see something that is wrong they will notify the right people.
“It is as if people now were to call 911 for a withered poison oak plant, like 'oh no please come water this plant.”
Over the past six weeks the PSRF has been involved in the stranding and death of “an unknown number, conservatively estimated to be in the hundreds,” of leopard sharks, bat rays, and other fish in the tidal estuaries of the San Fransisco Bay, deaths Van Sommeran says is due to pollution in conjunction with the practice of regulating the flow of tidal waters.
In addressing this problem, Van Sommeran has been met with resistance and denial of the problem by members of the public works department, and even the press, who all seem to agree that rain water, and not pollution or human action, was responsible for the massive shark die-off.
Van Sommeran disagrees.
“If a sea otter gets a hang nail, people all over start blaming pollution, nail polish remover and PCB's and all that. But hundreds of sharks start dying and all you get is 'oh, it just rained.'”
Van Sommeran has been doing shark conservation for over 20 years, and hopes he will be doing it for the next 20 years. “Its a very rewarding and important job to do,” he says.
The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation organizes a volunteer based conservation class.
“Its really cheap; a couple of hundred bucks for the whole summer; its structured like a field course, with continuing action as a volunteer. All you need is a wet suit and be able to swim, and the foundation will train you in all the other skills.”
The class starts on Elkhorn Slough, and depending on how you do there, there are possibilities to go on to our other projects like the white shark monitoring off Ano Nuevo.
Despite setbacks and long legal battles, Van Sommeran is optimistic about the future of sharks and their ecosystems, and sees the Monterey Bay as a perfect example of the success of conservation action
“The really cool thing about Monterey Bay is its all here- you don't' have to go to BC to see Orcas, or Australia to see a white shark. It's all here. You just have to know when to be here.”
For more information, visit www.pelagic.org, or see the Facebook page, the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation.