Voices from the Waterfront
Mark Twinam shows hooks used to catch sharks.
The Captain Tate heads out to fish.
A sandbar shark caught as part of the research fishery.
Mark Twinam Fishes for Sharks Off Florida Coast
January 15, 2013
Meet Mark Twinam of St. Petersburg, Florida, who fishes from Madeira Beach for large coastal sharks such as hammerhead, lemon and bull sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s part of a group of fishermen who help NOAA research sharks in exchange for landing and selling a small quota of sandbar sharks. Twinam fishes from his 40-foot single-engine boat, the Captain Tate, named for his son, who he proudly says is getting a doctorate in economics although he fished with Twinam as a boy. “I pretty much cured him of fishing. He decided schoolwork wasn’t so bad.”
How did you get into shark fishing?
I started fishing after high school, went grouper fishing, then fished with longlines for tuna and swordfish. There was a bycatch (unintentional catch) of sharks, and we thought we’d like to sell them. We caught some sharks off Tampa Bay in the 1980s and that was around the time the government was encouraging fishermen to go shark fishing. I’ve been doing it off and on ever since.
How is the shark fishing business these days?
Practically nonexistent. The fishing effort today is not even five percent of what it was in the 1980s. The quotas are strict, not many people participate although we’re filling the quota. Then there’s the research fishery. These are the only fishermen allowed to land sandbar sharks. I’m involved with the research. We take an observer on our boat; they count sharks, measure them, and collect other biological information. We get paid by selling the sharks we catch.
What are the major challenges in the shark fishing business?
The biggest challenge is the propaganda from environmentalists who say that everyone in the world is cutting the fins off and throwing the sharks back alive. This is not what we’re doing in the U.S. We follow the law, land sharks with fins attached, and sell both meat and fins. This year, we’ve had a tremendous challenge because environmentalists persuaded the California Legislature to ban the buying, selling and trading of shark fins. California was our biggest market for fins and a connection to the Hong Kong market. Now the price, if you can sell them, has dropped from $32 per pound to $14.
They don’t like it if we cut the fins off and throw the fish away, but now we’re in a position where we can sell the fish and have to throw the fins away because our market is disappearing. The fins are two thirds of the value. Eventually I think we could get this market back where it could be half for meat and half for fins. But when the supply is intermittent, it hurts demand.
What changes have you seen in shark populations during the 30 years you’ve fished them?
When a fishery starts out, fishermen don’t know where it’s going and the government doesn’t know where it’s going. At some point, you learn you’re catching too much and you adjust down the catch. But no one knows where that is, and we’re working together now to learn where that sustainable level of shark fishing is.
When we first started catching sharks, I caught in one trip what I’ve caught all year this past year. There were more boats fishing them. I think we thinned them out too much according to the government. Now the sharks are coming back and they’re coming back a lot faster than anybody anticipated. That’s why I’m glad to see this research. Let’s get the facts and let the chips fall where they may.
What is your reaction to NOAA’s newly proposed shark fishing rule to help rebuild depleted sharks?
Their heart’s in the right place, but I’ll need to look at the details to be sure all the proposals make sense. I’m looking closely at the plan to close shark fishing for three months in the central Gulf of Mexico off St. Petersburg and Tampa.
What is your favorite fish to eat?
Almaco Jack’s deep fried or baked grouper.