It is now the first Shark Free Marina in Massachusetts. Soon there will be signs and other paraphernalia proclaiming the fact, all courtesy of the Shark Free Marina Initiative.
This doesn’t mean sharks themselves couldn’t swim around the boats – they just can’t arrive via hook.
“Sharks are not really a big thing here on the Cape,” noted boatyard owner John Our. “But we all know there is a growing problem, especially with shark finning; catching the sharks and cutting the fins off. So when (Kate Metzler) came to me, it was easy for us.”
Metzler is a sometime Harwich resident who has a lifelong fascination with sharks.
“I love fishing for marlin or tuna,” she explained. “But things are not the way they used to be. We need to correct what’s going on if we can.”
Marlins and sharks can be caught on a catch and release basis.
“Shark fishing is not a bad thing if it’s catch and release,” Our noted. “But cutting the fins off and sending them back is morally wrong. This just shows that we care.”
Even the Martha’s Vineyard shark tournament is doing more measurements by photography and then releasing the sharks, Our noted.
“We can change our fishing philosophy,” Metzler said.
So she set about doing just that.
“I’ve been passionate about sharks since I was young. I was wondering how I can make that my lifelong occupation, waiting for a job like that to come to me, and I thought why not take it upon myself and go before other people. It opened my mind that I don’t need a job, title or organization. You can benefit from all those groups that are out there and on the right path,” Metzler reflected.
Metzler is a dedicated shark advocate.
“I started out a lot different from my sisters; they all liked whales and dolphins. I liked sharks,” she recalled. “As I got older I learned how important they are and I came to have a great appreciation for them as marine animals. I feel we’re killing them from fear or a macho philosophy.”
Not everyone appreciates sharks, although we’re sure Steven Spielberg does, but they have crucial functions.
“They’re an apex predator and they’re an important check and balance on everything below them,” Metzler said. “Everything about them evolved very slowly and they don’t reproduce quickly because you don’t want an abundance of apex predators.”
Metzler summered in Harwich for many years and her parents moved here, from Connecticut, full time in 2001. She currently interns at a nonprofit in New York City.
Despite her interest in sharks, she had never heard of the Shark Free Marinas Initiative until recently, partly because it is an initiative organized in 2008 in the Bahamas to prevent the overfishing of sharks. Sharks are popular sport fish off the Bahamas. Initiative co-founder Patric Douglas was appalled by photos of a hooked 13-foot tiger shark, a threatened species.
“I love sport fishing and I’m always checking web sites and I found one web site that will bring up any article for sharks. I read an article about the Shark Free Marinas Initiative,” Metzler explained. “We still have a huge shark tournament on Martha’s Vineyard and it takes a lot of sharks out of the water because sharks are migratory so they’re taking them from everyone else’s areas and we’re at the point with shark numbers that every one does count.”
Sharks range from the extremely rare (some deep water sharks have never been seen alive) to the relatively abundant (dogfish).
Sharks such as the blue, bull, great white, hammerhead, lemon, white tip, shortfin mako, spiny dogfish, thresher and tiger are caught for sport or fins for shark fin soup, teeth for decoration, salted or smoked meat, liver oil, fish meal or even making “leather.”
There are nine critically endangered sharks and eight endangered ones. Many of the sport sharks fall into the vulnerable category.
Last April, U.S. Sen. John Kerry introduced the Shark Conservation Act with the purpose of closing loopholes in laws banning “finning.” Fishermen chop the fins off while the sharks are still alive, then toss them back into the water to bleed to death. The bill requires fins aboard vessels to be naturally attached to the shark. The Animal Welfare Institute estimates 73 million sharks are killed each year by finning.
“We need to set an example for other nations,” Metzler said.
Metzler decided to set her own example at her home base. Her family keeps their boat at Stone Horse Yacht Club on Wychmere Harbor.
“I call that harbor home,” she said. “I know John Our is very concerned with environmental issues and wants to protect our environment. I felt that was a very good starting spot and can be used as a jumping platform. Kids can learn from this so I thought it would have a strong impact.”
Sharks are not as warm and fuzzy as puppy dogs or even as cheery as dolphins. Conservation-wise they fall into the same category as rattlesnakes and spiders – unloved.
“I understand sharks are scary,” Metzler conceded, “but we have put them in situations that bring them closer to shore. They’re not getting the same food in the ocean so they have to come closer and more people are swimming and surfing so there is a greater chance of contact. But they serve a greater purpose. We need them there. If they don’t eat the seals, the seals will take our cod.”
The Harwich Port Boat Yard is just step one in the campaign.