Goblin Shark Is Horrifying, But What About Bycatch? Conservationists Warn Against Overfishing

By Ben Wolford on May 5, 2014 2:16 PM EDT

A shrimper captured a goblin shark off the Florida Keys, a rare deep-sea specimen not known for its beauty. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A shrimper captured a goblin shark off the Florida Keys, a rare deep-sea specimen not known for its beauty. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On April 19, a shrimper 10 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, lifted a ghastly looking shark into his boat. Called a goblin shark, this rare beast is known for its slimy body, massive schnoz, and toothy grin. The fisherman, Capt. Carl Moore, told NBC News it was the "ugliest" and rarest catch he's ever made.

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The story and haunting photo of the goblin shark quickly made the rounds on the internet. "Hey look, something rare. Let's kill it!" wrote one mistaken but well-meaning commenter on Gawker. In fact, the shark was not killed. According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries' Facebook post, Moore snapped some pictures and then quickly released it back into the water. "NOAA biologists are working with the fisherman to collect important information about the shark, a known deep water species," they wrote. "Shortly after capture, the shark was released and swam away."

And the goblin shark, it should also be noted, isn't really all that rare. True, it's only the "second goblin shark of record in the Gulf of Mexico," according to NOAA. But this nasty looking thing is not endangered and is listed in the category "least concern" by the World Conservation Union. You can find them in basically any ocean in the world if you look far enough off the coast and deep enough.

But the shark's capture should be alarming for what it represents: A guy was fishing for shrimp but managed to land an 18-foot-long shark. The thing is, nets don't discriminate. And conservationists are worried that deaths and injuries from these uninintentional catches — called bycatch — are furthering the global menace of overfishing.

In March, the activist group Oceana unveiled the results of a major study to determine how many sea animals fall victim to nets and hooks that weren't for them. They found that industrial fishermen toss back one out of every five creatures they pull out of the ocean, many of them dead or dying. "Hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales, sharks, sea birds, sea turtles, and fish needlessly die each year as a result of indiscriminate fishing gear," said Amanda Keledjian, report author and marine scientist at Oceana, in a statement.

The consequences may be dire. For one, an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die every year from entanglement in fishing gear, and some of these species are endangered. The North Atlantic Right Whale is perhaps the most endangered whale species in the world, and it's actually become rare to see one without the characteristic scars of entanglement wounds. Even more vital is the food that comes from ocean. Often, illegal fishing has created a situation where some species are so depleted they are unable to maintain healthy population numbers — this is what's meant by the term overfishing.

This goblin shark seems to have escaped unharmed, though it's hard to be certain. And even if Moore had decided to keep it, he would've been allowed to. (Though he told NBC News: "As ugly as it was, I don't think I'd bite into it.") But environmentalists say advances in fishing gear technology can ensure bycatch like this doesn't affect more vulnerable — less ugly — populations.

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