Shooting Fish in a Barrel: Bimini, Bahamas

Posted on September 17, 2009
Written by: Shark Savers

Ironically, Bimini is iconic for being both the home of a world-renowned shark research center and a sport fishing Mecca. The Bimini Biological Field Station (Sharklab) was established in 1990 by pioneering shark scientist Dr Samuel Gruber. The various marine ecosystems here are home to nearly 20 different species of sharks and provide a unique and crucial study area.

Known for its " Big Game," sportsmen from all over the world travel to Bimini to land their prize catch. In recent years, as is the case across the globe, the number of big game fish is declining. Many species of sharks are considered trophy game fish; sought after for their strong fight, jaws and fins. My first visit to Bimini was in 2005 and our boat hit the dock just in time to see a dead 10 ft hammerhead being strung up. This amazing animal was surrounded by a group of guys drinking beer and snapping photographs. They later cut out the jaws and tossed the body into the marina. How could an island so proud of its world-renowned shark work, allow this horrific display to happen?

Bimini, being approximately 50 miles from Florida, is often the destination of the, "weekend warrior." The weekend warrior loads their boat with a full arsenal of gear and heads to Bimini to pillage the sea with no discretion. This often includes "fishing," in the marinas, a place where bull sharks and nurse sharks tend to linger. People throw in the fish scraps from the day, sling back a few beers and wait for the sharks to come around. Once caught, the shark is hauled onto the dock, strung up for photos or allowed to writhe until reaching its undignified death. The jaws are kept as a souvenir of this conquest. I am not sure what part of this ritual is sporting, challenging or how it is even considered fishing? Staff from the Sharklab have actually purchased these sharks and rescued them from this cruel fate. Extremely stressed and often near death, the animals must be walked or swam to force oxygen through the gills. People think of these animals as ferocious man-eaters, but being dragged up onto dock is enough to kill even the strongest and healthiest shark.

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Duncan Brake filming Caribbean reef sharks at the dive site in Bimini. Photo: Jillian Morris

For nearly 20 years, a site off the south island of Bimini has been used for shark dives. It attracts dozens of Caribbean reef sharks that snorkelers and divers can get an up close look at. Needing a shark fix, Duncan Brake and I decided to jump on the weekly trip with former Sharklab managers Grant Johnson and Katie Grudeki. The two now run these trips every Saturday for the Bimini Sands Resort & Marina. The Sands was the first in all of the Bahamas to join the Shark Free Marina Initiative and is actively involved in shark conservation. The trips are designed to dispel myths about these animals while giving a first hand experience. Locals and regulars to the island know the sharks are there and respect the area as a no fishing zone. The aforementioned weekend warrior however, sees this as a prime spot to reel in a big one.

On this particular trip we arrived on site, finding another boat already anchored nearby. This sport fishing style of boat was loaded with large fishing rods and heavy line; exactly the equipment needed for catching sharks and other large pelagics. Being that the depth is only about 20 feet, I doubt they were fishing for tuna or marlin. As Grant and Katie explained how the dive was going to work, a loud commotion from the other boat drew everyone's attention. The guys yelled and quickly grabbed one of the rods as the line went tight. We watched as they struggled until the line snapped. The other people on the boat with us were unaware of that had just happened, but our group knew exactly what we had just witnessed. Grant and Katie continued talking about sharks, as education is the focal point of the trip. As we all got geared up and slipped into the water, our fishing neighbors pulled anchored and motored off. We had already written down the name of the boat and taken photographs.

The dive was beautiful and more than a dozen Caribbean reef sharks showed up along with a very large nurse shark. The reef surrounding the site is also quite beautiful and a mass of reef fish joined in the feeding event. One particular 7ft reef shark caught our attention, clearly adorned with some new jewelry. A shiny silver hook with about twenty feet of high test fishing line trailed from the left side of her mouth. We were seeing, "the one that got away." She was more skittish than the other sharks, hanging just at the edge of the action. Back on the boat, Katie and Grant paused to speak about the situation that had just occurred. Although it is a horrible thing to witness, it is the reality that these animals face globally.

As we pulled back into the marina our fishing friends had their boat pulled up to the fuel dock. I jumped out and walked over to see if they had any blood or sharks on the deck. I even casually asked if they had any luck with the sharks. My question was met with a mumbled response that is inappropriate for this piece. I then asked them if they were aware that the marina was Shark Free, explaining what this meant. This time they just ignored me. This is the typical response when people don't believe that the rules or suggested operating procedures apply to them. Being a Shark Free means that no sharks can be brought in or caught within the marina, but with no evidence our hands were tied. We mentioned the name of the boat to the dock masters and owner in case they did return with a shark. We left frustrated that there was not more we could do. There are no official laws protecting this site, but those living and working on the island have a vested interested in seeing it survive. We hoped that word would spread around the island and force the boat to return to its homeport.

At the end of the day this shark did not become a trophy. Her body did not get stripped of its fins and jaws before being dumped back in the sea. She continued to swim as a guardian of that reef and is hopefully still doing so. The day's events made a strong statement to the family that had joined us on the dive; one I doubt they will forget anytime soon. They spent the next day touring the lab and will hopefully make adjustments in their own lives to benefit and protect our marine environments. We were reminded why the fight for these animals must continue. I doubt the guys on the fishing boat learned a lesson, but maybe it at least made them aware of the situation. Areas like this shark diving site are unrivaled as educational tools, but easily susceptible to the devastation caused by fishing. They need to be protected, so that people like the ones we encountered, are no longer able to shoot fish in a barrel.