Fishermen trying to catch cownose rays in the Potomac River yesterday netted something larger: an 8-foot-long shark. “I was quite surprised. It was a bull shark, the most aggressive shark there is, and the first one I’ve ever caught,” fisherman David Ridgell, told Bay Daily. He said he and his co-workers hauled in the shark (pictured above) in Cornfield Harbor, near Point Lookout, at the far eastern end in the Potomac.
NBC News dubbed the incident: “Jaws in the Potomac” and played up the danger angle. But here’s the irony. It’s large sharks -– uncommon in the Chesapeake Bay -– that are much more in danger than the people who might come in contact with them. While shark attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, sharks are victims of severe overfishing up and down the Atlantic Coast.
Bull shark populations declined more than 99 percent between 1970 and 2005 because of rising demand for shark fins (for soup) and meat, according to a report in the journal Science. The "declines in great sharks...imply their likely functional elimination," wrote biologist Ransom A. Myers and colleagues. And as shark populations have plummeted, numbers of cow-nose rays -– a favorite food of the sharks -– have skyrocketed, triggering a chain reaction in the Chesapeake Bay’s chain of life. The theory is that not enough sharks means too many rays, and this translates to not enough oysters –- because rays love to gobble up oysters and disrupt oyster planting projects.
So, for the sequel, let’s rewrite the plot and keep Jaws in the Potomac.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo courtesy of Buzz's Marina)