Bryan (aka Benda) Balancio
By Jennifer Stahl, August 19, 2020
Bryan (aka Benda) Balancio grew up in Waianae on the West side of Oahu where he began fishing with his Dad at age 10. As a commercial fisherman, now based on the west side of the Big Island, he is on the water a lot, fishing for bait (opelu), tuna, or bottomfish and has encountered, in his words, “millions” of sharks during his lifetime. Benda spends about 3 to 4 days a week on the water and sees sharks a good proportion of the time. Recently, he has been seeing more sharks and speculates this could be related to changing current dynamics that he has observed in the last couple of years. With all that time on the water he has seen sharks do some pretty amazing things; including a 1000 lb Mako, the size of a Volkswagen, breach out of the water. He also witnessed a thresher shark whip a sunfish with its tail, and has taken a couple hits in the face by threshers he's captured over the years. One of these slaps even knocked him to the ground!
Benda started collaborating with the Hawaii Community Tagging Program (HCTP) in 2017 and during this time has tagged sharks with acoustic, satellite, and identification (ID) tags. From the video footage that he has provided us, we can attest to the fact that he has mastered his tagging technique. Some sharks he is even able to tag without actually hooking them. Oceanic whitetips are particularly curious creatures, and he has been able to bait them to his boat for tagging. Typically, after he tags sharks, he has observed them immediately leaving the area, and he doesn’t see them again. However, recently he has encountered a couple silky sharks that were already tagged, which indicates some sharks may be residential to a particular location.
Prior to partnering with the HCTP a few years ago, Benda shared with us that he often felt like he had to kill sharks when they became a nuisance and or hindrance to catching target species. His perspective has since shifted. He now considers himself and other humans as visitors in the sharks’ home and recognizes that these animals have an essential role in a healthy ecosystem. So, what shifted his mindset? Benda began receiving feedback from the HCTP scientists that showed him where the sharks he tagged had traveled and how they were moving through the water column. This information both interested and fascinated him. He started seeing sharks differently and began to more closely observe their behaviors around his boat and the fish he was targeting. He believes the more we understand shark behavior, then the better we can work around them instead of against them. This ideology allows him to reduce the catch lost from shark depredation and is crucial when commercial fishing is your livelihood.
Benda has empathy for other fishermen and their frustration with shark interactions. Commercial fishermen may lose a lot of revenue from sharks taking their catch, their bait, and their gear. While recreational or sport fishers may have limited opportunities to fish, so sharks eating their catch can be very upsetting. Both these scenarios could result in fishers responding to encounters by killing sharks. However, he would like to offer fishers the mitigation techniques that he has developed as alternatives. He understands that it may be more difficult for fishermen that don’t spend as much time as him on the water to understand shark behavior. However, he feels he is living proof that there are ways to successfully work around these animals.
First, if a shark is just swimming around his boat, then he watches it and leaves it alone if it isn’t eating his catch. He gives the shark the benefit of the doubt until it starts biting his fish. He realizes sharks are sometimes full and will not bother you. This is especially true with oceanic whitetips that may be cruising around the boat in the open ocean. He “already knows what these sharks are thinking”.
If a shark gets hooked and he fights it for more than 5 minutes, then he cuts the shark loose and lets it swim away. He recognizes that the shark will be burned out, sufficiently irritated by the interaction, and will no longer bother with him or his fish.
If a shark starts eating his fish and he wants to get it out of the way, then he will hook it on purpose and attach a floater or “jug” to the line to deter the shark from bothering his fish. His setup is designed to minimize long-term harm to the shark. He uses 200-lb test monofilament that the shark can easily bite through and a galvanized, circle hook that will eventually rust out. After about 5 minutes of fighting the “jug”, then the shark will leave him alone for the rest of the day. After that he is able to cut the line if the shark hasn’t already bitten through it. He also will pick up the “jug”, so he doesn’t leave plastic in the ocean. He speculates that there may be a biodegradable alternative for fishers to use.
If he has a big, valuable tuna on the line and a hungry Oceanic whitetip starts cruising by, then he goes against conventional knowledge. Instead of holding the line tight, he slacks his line, so the tuna can run. He believes if you hold on tight to the line, then the tuna will send out stress signals that will attract the shark. However, if the tuna can run, then the shark will not go after it. “The shark knows it can’t catch a tuna.” He then satisfies the shark by filling its belly with some small, less valuable tuna or opelu. Then he can bring his big tuna up next to the shark with no issues. (We at the HCTP headquarters particularly love this one! Let us know if you give it a try)
He also recognizes when he can fish alongside sharks and when it is time to move to a different location. When he pulls up to a Fish Aggregating Device (FAD) he usually encounters silky sharks and he can tell when these sharks are full—they will follow the tuna but not eat. If they are full, he can keep fishing. Or if there are only 1 to 2 sharks around, then he will let them have a couple fish, and then they will leave his fish alone. But if there are three or more hungry silky sharks, then it may not be profitable to keep fishing. He believes these sharks are very competitive. So, rather than get frustrated, he will move on and may return to the same spot the following day. He figures “We are in their house, all we can do is watch how they behave, figure out if we are going to be able to fish there, if they are going to let us catch a few… let them have their share of fish, and the next one, you might get them (tuna)”.
Benda appreciates all the information he has received while working with the Hawaii Community Tagging Program. “I’ve learned how to sex sharks, where they travel, if they are residential, and if they stay in the islands…really interesting to see the shark you tagged, especially with a satellite tag. See where it went, how many days, where it was at this time and where it was at that time. It gives us so much knowledge and for our kids it's good to have all that knowledge.” He loves sharing the maps of where his sharks traveled with his kids. In his kids’ eyes he is the cool Dad that tags sharks. He believes that Dr. Melanie Hutchinson and the HCTP have saved thousands of sharks by giving him and other fishermen the appreciation and understanding of these animals, and he is now eager to pass this message of conservation to his kids and other fishermen. He feels that many other fishers may feel this sentiment as well, if they had more knowledge of the sharks and their behavior.
Thanks Benda for sharing your story! We appreciate all your hard work to support the HCTP research objectives and shark conservation. We have learned just as much from you and our participating fishers!