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Bait and Black Magic: Shark Fishing Woes in Fiji

We were willing to try just about anything, including rally caps, talisman and shark dances—anything to catch a shark. We scoured the horizon for bird activity. We searched seamounts and steep drop-offs. We drifted with our chum slicks into the deep blue. We hung multiple fresh, whole yellowfin tuna from our buoys, shaking our heads in disbelief...

We were willing to try just about anything, including rally caps, talisman and shark dances—anything to catch a shark. We scoured the horizon for bird activity. We searched seamounts and steep drop-offs. We drifted with our chum slicks into the deep blue. We hung multiple fresh, whole yellowfin tuna from our buoys, shaking our heads in disbelief when after four hours, the fish were brought onboard unscathed. We changed the bait, the location and split our crew to fish in shifts. Surely if we just fished longer, harder, we’d catch them, we thought. We chummed some days from 4am-11pm. We fixated our ambition on the sea with increasing intensity, and some would say, insanity. But despite our superstition and backbreaking efforts, for the first six days of the expedition, we caught none.

Picture of Fijian man chumming for sharks at dawn
Jone Tamanitoakula of Fiji Fisheries spends hours chumming for sharks as part of our research team. (Photograph by Andy Mann, 3 Strings Productions)

Just when inactivity threatened the team’s morale, the high-pitched scream of the reel fueled us with bursts of adrenaline. We caught yellowfin tuna, wahoo and mahi mahi like it was our job—but it wasn’t. Our job was to study sharks. We intended to help local communities, fisheries managers and scientists to understand shark ecology and movement patterns in Fiji by placing GoPro video cameras on the reef, and pop-up satellite archival tags (PSAT) on the sharks.

Picture of men looking into ocean with remote underwater video cameras in the foreground
Mark Bond and Tim MacDonald prepare to set the Remote Underwater Video (RUV) rigs, which are set on the reef to record eight uninterrupted hours of video. The team hopes to understand the interactions of sharks and fish communities. (Photograph by Andy Mann/3 Strings Productions)

On the fifth day, we nearly struck gold. We had just caught a mahi mahi. It’s thrashing sent hypnotic bursts of blue and green into the air, signaling an exciting end to an otherwise lackluster day. We decided to fish for fresh bait on our way back to the main boat, since we were saving the mahi mahi for dinner. With two reels trolling and a chum slick more than a mile long, we saw it.  “Shark! Shark!” yelled the team. The struggling mahi mahi must have drawn it closer. The snout of the Mako shark, known for its speed and jumping ability, was indistinguishable. We had spotted a number of reef sharks throughout the week, but this was the first pelagic shark we saw. We were targeting the pelagic sharks for satellite tagging because those are the sharks targeted by the commercial fishery.  And those are the sharks that need some level of protection. The shark’s black eye observed us as it slowly rounded the port side of our boat, dorsal fin out of the water. It seemed like only seconds had passed, but before we could get a buoy and heavier line in the water to hook the nearly 8ft long shark, we heard it. The familiar scream of the reel. The shark was not supposed to take the trolling line and we had no choice now except to try to reel it in. Two people turned around to grab gear and I turned to get the harness for Joe Lepore, Waitt Institute’s operational lead. A keen fisherman, he had already begun to reel in the shark. A moment later, the crew erupted into a cheer that rivaled a world cup goal. The shark launched itself 15-20ft in the air, snapping the line. And I had missed it.

Picture of shark researchers fishing from a boat before dawn
The research team split into smaller groups, hoping to increase their chances of catching pelagic sharks.  Here, Lucy, Jess and Jone eyeball a fin in the water and an impending storm just before sunrise. (Photograph by Andy Mann/3 Strings Productions)

That night, we had to say goodbye to three of our team members, including our chief scientist Dr. Demian Chapman, due to prior obligations back at home. But despite our decrease in hands, the Mako shark greatly increased our morale. We felt certain that we would deploy all of our satellite tags before the close of our expedition.

Picture of shark researchers sitting in a circle speaking to Fiji Fisheries officer
Members of the Fiji Shark Expedition gather around a Fiji Fisheries officer in Kadavu, Fiji to learn more about local shark populations. (Photograph by Andy Mann/3 Strings Productions)
Picture of female hands holding a silvertip shark in tonic immobility
A juvenile silvertip shark is held in position to induce tonic immobility, allowing the team to quickly take its measurements. This shark was too small to satellite tag. (Photograph by Andy Mann, 3 Strings Productions)

The second week, we continued to fish long and hard, deploying both our trusted and more eclectic techniques.  We had some success with silver tip sharks, but had not yet deployed all of our tags. Nor had we tagged a pelagic shark over 6ft long. Nearing the end, our target eluded us. To catch the sharks we were willing to do just about anything.  Anything except give up.

Photo of girl handling a shark off of a boat
After nearly a week of bad luck, Tina Weier is so excited by the team’s first hooked shark that she can’t stop smiling. (Photograph by Andy Mann, 3 Strings Productions)

*Trailer to Fiji Sharks documentary filmed and directed by Andy Mann of 3 Strings Productions available now.  Full film to be released mid-August!  Stay tuned for updates.

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Meet the Author

Jess Cramp
Jess Cramp is a scientist, surfer, diver, pilot, writer and conservationist whose philanthropic adventures have taken her from a field hospital in post-earthquake Haiti to a rural mountain village in Guatemala. She spent the past 3 years in the Cook Islands, spearheading the establishment of the Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary, legislated in December 2012. Currently without a permanent address, Jess is in a different country every month and in the ocean as much as possible. She splits her time between assisting the Cook Islands government in establishing a large-scale marine park, leading marine research expeditions throughout the Pacific, and helping her own burgeoning organization, Sharks Pacific, to become a key player in community-based shark research and conservation. She smiles a lot. Instagram: @bunchofbullshark (coming soon!)