Article

Unlikely Allies

How surfers are helping to save sharks from extinction

| posted on December 27, 2012

Mike Casey isn’t afraid of great white sharks. Otherwise he wouldn’t have made Bodega Bay’s Salmon Creek his homebreak. The Creek is one of the most white shark-infested breaks in northern California’s Red Triangle—an area stretching roughly from Big Sur up to Bodega Bay and out to the Farallon Islands—which means it’s one of the most white shark-infested breaks on earth. Still, he says, “You’re more likely to get into a car accident than hit by a white.” That’s exactly what he told his father-in-law before heading out for a session on Thanksgiving morning in 2002. It was glassy, offshore, with peaky, 10- to 12-foot faces-—one of those days. Casey had just snatched a gorgeous right. “I remember being lifted up,” he recalled, “and then being hit with pain, more pain than I’d ever felt.”

Casey looked down to see a set of gaping jaws retreating into the murky green. They were the jaws of what would later be revealed—judging from the teeth marks on Casey’s left leg—as a 16-foot white, an animal that probably weighed a few thousand pounds and looked something like a Brinks security truck with teeth. A huge slab of meat was hanging off Casey’s left thigh. Carlo Mascolo, a 25-year Salmon Creek veteran (who’d seen this before), paddled up to Casey calmly. “I’m not leaving your side,” Mascolo told him. “Stay with me.” With Mascolo’s help, Casey was able to paddle 150 yards back to the beach where he was airlifted to the hospital.

X-rays showed teeth marks down to the bone. But like 90 percent of shark-attack victims, Casey would survive. Several surgeries had him back in the water in a little more than two months—right back at Salmon Creek. When asked what advice he had for surfers who wanted to avoid an attack, he said, “I don’t worry about it.” Rather than going on some vigilante crusade for the “man-eater,” Casey developed more respect for sharks. “It could’ve taken me out easily if it wanted to,” he explained. He even became a shark advocate.

While he was healing, Bethany Hamilton lost her arm to a tiger shark in Kauai. “A bunch of guys went and hooked a shark and said, ‘We got him,’” Casey recalled. “It was all this chest beating, and I thought it was ridiculous.” Casey, a lawyer, wrote a letter to the Kauai newspaper, saying, “I was bitten by a shark and I don’t advocate killing them. These animals deserve our respect. We’re on their turf.”

Surfers have been known to occasionally seek some sort of Mafioso vengeance on sharks after an attack (as if the shark was breaking the law). But these days, it’s rare. After a fatal attack on Reunion Island in 2011, a local crew reportedly killed 10 white sharks in the area, but they got an earful for it. Sea Shepherd, the environmental non-profit that Kelly Slater and Dave Rastovich sit on the board of, called the shark killers “a frightened pack of sissified wimps.”

These days, it seems most surfers are much more like Casey. Even though we’re by far the most exposed population to shark attacks, surfers have actually played a role in keeping great whites and other species off the extinction list. “Sharks are in deep trouble,” says John McCosker, a surfer and chief aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Sciences who’s been studying white sharks for more than two decades. “Having surfers on Save the Sharks campaigns has been incredibly powerful. Everyone knows they’re out with these animals everyday.”

Even if Casey had wanted to go shark hunting after the attack, he wouldn’t have been legally able to. Great white sharks have had protected status in California (the first state in the United States to do so) since 1993, and Northern California surfers were among the most active supporters of the legislation. Eric Larsen, a surfer who needed 200 stitches after being hit by a white, even wrote this letter to congress:

“I am writing to express my support for AB 522 to protect white sharks in California. As you may know, I was mauled by a shark thought to be a great white on July 1, 1991, while surfing near Davenport, CA. My experience with the shark convinced me that sharks are an important part of the natural order of things.”

The Surfrider Foundation avidly supported the bill too. Mark Massara, then head lawyer, said this in the bill’s commentary: “When surfers paddle out, we become part of the food chain—and we like that.” You may not agree, but Massara, who now works as an environmental lawyer at O’Neill, explained to me recently what he was getting at.

Shark-attack survivor Mike Coots, one of the many surfers fighting to save sharks from being hunted. Photo: Stillwell

“Some surfers, myself included, are drawn to the ocean not solely for chance to rip waves but also for wilderness. You can’t have an authentic wilderness experience unless you are part of the food chain, and have a reasonable—small maybe, but real—chance of being eaten by nature. Sharks were here before humans and we’re merely on a temporary visit to their watery home base. I lose interest in an Africa without lions, the Sierras without mountain lions, Yellowstone without Grizzlies, and an ocean without sharks.”

The average guy on the street may still take the awesome—but scientifically ridiculous—movie Jaws as his primary education on sharks, then get goosebumps about the over-hyped, ratings-driven media reports on “killer shark” attacks around the globe. But like the ancient Hawaiians—who worshipped sharks as aumakua (ancestor)—surfers tend to be far more educated. Most of us know that fewer than one person per year is killed by a shark in the U. S., and about five worldwide. Those of us who surf in the Red Triangle or similarly sharky areas in Australia or Chile aren’t stupid enough to think sharks aren’t a real threat. We’ve all seen them and had friends who had their boards bumped or chomped. But we also know that we take on risks outside the water that are far more likely to kill us. Compare, for example, the United States’ one fatal shark attack per year to the more than 20 people killed by dog bites, more than 40 from lightning strikes, more than 600 from bicycle accidents, more than 30,000 from car accidents, and more than 600,000 from heart disease. “They’re not after you,” says Peter Pyle, a lifelong surfer and biologist who studied white sharks up close at the Farallon Islands for 23 years. After witnessing thousands of white shark attacks on seals, Pyle, who helped spur the white shark protection law in California, still surfs the sharky waters around Point Reyes, and without any jitters. “On the off chance that they take a bite, it’s because they’re mistaking you for a seal or sea lion,” says Pyle. “If you learn their behavior patterns, there’s not much to worry about.”

It’s not that you shouldn’t be careful and trust your instincts, Pyle is quick to add. And you might want to stay away from deep-water drop-off points like Davenport or Mavericks in Northern California. But even if you take on the obvious risk of surfing these spots every day—statistically speaking—you should still be having more nightmares about minivans, dogs, and quarter-pounders with cheese than sharks.

The media is getting better at covering sharks with more nuance, but you still rarely hear that, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one-third of all shark species are in danger of vanishing forever, including great whites, due mostly to shark finning. Between 30 million and 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins that fetch upwards of $200 per pound in Asian markets for shark-fin soup. Fins hacked off, most of these sharks are thrown back into the ocean, writhing, to die a slow, painful, wasteful death. This is happening daily at a time when a recent survey led by Stanford marine biologist Barbara Block estimated that there are only about 3,500 great white sharks left on the planet, making the great white more threatened than the tiger (as in the big cat, not the shark).

With the threat of white shark extinction rising, Slater, Rastovich, and thousands of other surfers are once again at the forefront of new laws to protect sharks. Our bodysurfing President Obama signed the Shark Protection Act into law last year, forbidding shark finning in U.S. waters, and California Governor Jerry Brown recently outlawed even the sale of shark-fin soup in California. Both of these landmark bills likely wouldn’t have passed without surfing scientists and activists urging them on. And let’s not forget that it was back in the summer of 2009 that SURFER Magazine contributing photographer and shark attack survivor Mike Coots first walked into the halls of Congress with eight other shark attack survivors—some missing arms, others legs—to advocate for the Shark Conservation Act. The bill passed congress shortly after Coots’ visit. (Coots and the group of survivors are now the subject of a Discovery Channel show called “Shark Fight.” In 2012, they went back to congress to lobby for protection for other endangered shark species.)

This is all progress. “Sharks are an apex predator,” says McCosker, “and if apex predators disappear, the whole ecosystem crumbles like a house of cards.” The longer sharks are around, the longer we’ll be able to surf healthy oceans. But unfortunately, U.S. laws can’t solve an international problem.

It was thought that the white sharks in California were safe after Pyle and others helped pass a California white shark protection bill in 1993, but this was when white sharks were thought to stay close to shore all year to feed. Now, thanks to GPS tags (placed on shark fins, once again, largely by surfing scientists in Northern California) we know that the California white sharks travel thousands of miles per year: through open ocean, sometimes all the way to Hawaii, leaving them exposed to mistaken catches by long-lines, fishing nets, and finners. White sharks are now protected in the national waters of South Africa, Namibia, the United States, Australia, Malta, and Mexico, but because they’re migratory, white sharks are still very exposed in the open ocean or in countries like Argentina and Chile where there is a huge fishing industry and no protection. Not to mention the dozens of different shark species traveling in unregulated Asian waters. Great whites don’t reach sexual maturity for at least a decade, making them slow to reproduce, and most scientists didn’t realize until recently that they’ve probably been counting each great white two or three times in population studies as they travel great distances. “We need international protection for sharks,” McCosker says. “Immediately.”

Retired NBA star Yao Ming recently aired commercials in China that encourage people to stop eating shark-fin soup. “Remember,” he says, “when the buying stops, the killing can too.” Eco-minded chefs like Peter Phak are starting to push their faux shark-fin recipes on those who can’t bear the thought of giving up the delicacy. (Shark fins are relatively tasteless, so it’s not a hard to make a faux recipe taste like the real thing.) The question is, with somewhere around just 3,500 white sharks left, and so many other species threatened, will it stop before we wipe a 400-million-year-old fish—one of the last living dinosaurs—off the face of the earth? The scientists I talked to all said that an international campaign from surfers could be a major deciding factor.