(c) Deron Verbeck
By Jennifer Stahl, August 5, 2021
This quarter we are featuring our friend, colleague and longtime HCTP collaborator, Jamie Barlow, who is also a new father! Jamie is a spirited fisherman and scientist that provided us great perspectives from his unique point of view with lots of keen insights to share. His energy and passion are necessary to keep up with the schedule he has been following for the past few years since he got his own boat. During the week, he works as a senior biological technician at NOAA fisheries in Honolulu for the Science and Operations Division; he is a coxswain on research vessels and is a senior boating instructor for basic, intermediate and advance courses. While 2-3 weekends a month, he fishes for bottomfish, uku or trolls for tuna, mahimahi, and ono. On these overnight fishing weekends he likes to use a variety of techniques: live bait, ika-shibi, jigging, palu ahi, trolling, or his preferred method of deep water handline.
When on the water, Jamie usually targets bottomfish (opakapaka, uku, and onaga/ehu). He typically leaves from Hawaii Kai on Oahu’s southeast shore to head the 20 miles out to Penguin Banks. The remaining 30% of his fishing is focused on trolling with him likely visiting the state run fish aggregating devices (FADs) to jig for tuna (shibi) that he reaches by departing from Kaneohe on the east side of Oahu. During all these fishing trips, Jamie encounters a lot of sharks; especially on the Penguin banks. As Jamie sees it, fishing is a 3-step process: first, you get into close proximity to the fish (i.e. at a FAD if you are fishing tuna, a bird pile with mahimahi, or a topographic feature when bottomfishing), second, you get the fish to bite, and third, you get the fish into the boat. During the third step, the fish might come off the hook or get eaten by a shark. Jamie informed us that when it's particularly bad, around 60-70% of the fish he hooks are depredated by sharks!
All this first-hand experience with sharks eating his catch, means he has a lot of empathy for other fishers with a full understanding of their frustration with sharks. So why does he continue to fish? Well it's certainly not only for the money, he says! He calculates all his time and effort is likely equivalent to a minimum hourly wage. Instead, he fishes because he loves it, and he tags sharks because he truly wants to make a difference. He hopes by learning about shark movements, we can find ways to reduce depredation to catch while still conserving shark populations. He also really thinks it's cool to work with these animals!
Jamie began commercial fishing in Hawaii in 2010 as crew on boats out of Haleiwa. In 2017, he got his own boat and a year later he started tagging sharks for the HCTP. But Jamie first began tagging sharks a long time before that. Just after college he worked seasonally at the infamous Farallon Islands, Pt. Reyes and Tomalas Point off the California coast, where he joined a team researching Great white sharks. They tagged sharks by using seal decoys to attract sharks to the vessel and then used long poles to get tags on the animals. Although the Great white is humungous and one of the most feared sharks, he feels that tagging the shark species Hawaii-based fishers typically interact with is actually more difficult. They are hooked on your line and “they are always fighting you and can be incredibly powerful”. But all of Jamie’s experience teaching vessel safety and fishing commercially makes Jamie particularly good at tagging sharks for the HCTP. To date he has tagged 55 sharks for the HCTP, and as a result has a lot of good advice for us and others interested in tagging.
Jamie doesn’t only see tagging as a way to collect scientific data, but also as a shark deterrent. Once he sticks a tag in a shark he’s noticed that they tend to leave the area. (This is something that we have heard from most of our featured fishers during their interviews. We may be on to something with tagging!) Whether tagging a shark or getting back a lure, he has developed a system to safely handle shark bycatch with a combination of technique and paying close attention to the shark’s body language... First, Jamie lets a hooked shark run for a few minutes to tire it out, safely away from the boat. He then begins to bring the animal to the vessel while heading down seas at a slow 2-3 knots and is ready to give slack on the line if the shark curves its head or rolls to “power up” for a run. He always let’s the shark run to prevent the line from breaking and waits to pull it back to the boat once it is calm. When he “leaders” the shark into the vessel, he observes that it creates resistance with its pectoral fins flapping down like an airplane wing ready for landing. This positioning presents the animal nicely alongside the boat and just under the surface and allows for more controlled and safer tagging. He will use a boat hook to slide the lure up the leader before cutting the shark free at a location close to its jaw. He notes that “Safely cutting the shark free with minimal trailing gear and recovering a lure is a win-win situation for shark and fisherman.” This whole process he believes tires the shark to gain control, but never exhausts it to the point where it's too weak to recover as the movement of water over its gills keeps the animal perky.
Jamie also uses his experience to strategize ways to improve his outcomes as a fisherman while staying true to his values as a scientist. He really emphasizes the importance of not “teaching” the sharks to associate the boat with an easy meal. If he gets depredated by sharks, he changes his game plan. He will either move from his fishing spot or drive his boat to retrieve his fish up over deeper water. When bottomfishing for opakapaka, the fish are caught at around 400-500 ft while the sharks that have given him trouble typically hang at the top ⅓ of the water column waiting for him to pull in his catch. He’s noticed that his fish is usually depredated at around 40-200ft. If he has a fish hooked and knows that the sharks are likely going to get his fish because there are a couple in the area or he has already had fish eaten, then he may take a gamble. He will move into deeper water off the ledge to pull in his fish. It is possible that the fish may come off the hook while he is running, but less likely that it will be eaten as sharks tend to follow the boat and may get confused as to the location of the fish as he pulls it up over the deep water. But generally if there is more than one shark in an area, he will find another spot. He feels that fishers should rely on multiple spots they have scouted out, then they can bounce between locations to avoid shark depredation. He doesn’t want to be part of the problem as he has seen shark’s learn to associate boats and certain spots with food with more sharks now concentrated several miles offshore off Haleiwa after feeding by tour companies. He said that some of the “paka” (opakapaka) spots have become unfishable since 2014 with an increase in shark abundance to the area of 500%. His personal observations have led him to believe that this increase in shark depredation is due to sharks learning that boats equal food from the shark diving tours.
Jamie has been curious while fishing around Oahu which species of sharks are responsible for depredating his catch. So he has put on his “science hat” to confirm shark identifications with our team and using our identification guide. When fishing in shallow water of 50 fathoms or less, such as for uku or opakapaka at night, his interactions have mostly been with sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus). However, with the rest of his fishing, silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) have been the ones eating his catch. He considers silky sharks to be semi-pelagic as he interacts with them while bottomfishing or in open water, around FADs or when on tuna schools. Many fishers refer to stout brown sharks as “Bronze whalers”—the slang name for galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) and some of the other brown sharks found in Hawaii (Bronze whalers are a species of shark more typically encountered around Australia). However he has never observed any galapagos sharks depredating his catch. Silky sharks can be distinguished from the galapagos and other brown sharks by its more rounded dorsal fin that sits closer to its tail, about 3-4” behind its pectoral fin. For more on identification of Hawaii’s shark species, please refer to our guide: https://www.sharktagger.org/sharkidguides. Jamie also wants fishers to not be fooled by the nice soft-sounding name of the silky shark; this shark is aggressive and very competitive when more than one is in an area. He once saw six silky sharks acrobatically breaching as they chased down a hooked mahimahi. He recommends fishers to move out of an area if more than one silky is around or to take a deep breath and accept that about 60% of the day's catch will be lost. “It’s a weird perspective. On the weekends, the sharks are NOT my friend, in fact they are real punks. But come Monday, I put on the “ecosystem hat”, and I recognize their significance and importance to ocean health. So, I just sigh and accept my place in the food chain”.
Jamie has hopes that we can learn about Hawaii’s shark populations through tagging and other scientific research. His work has already allowed us to verify the species depredating in the fisheries he participates in. He believes that understanding each shark’s life history, such as how old they are, when they reproduce, and how fast they grow, could also be valuable in understanding their vulnerability to fishing and the environment. When this information is considered with shark movements, then we can get a bigger picture of how to best conserve these animals as apex predators in the ecosystem while sustaining profitable small boat fisheries (a complex issue indeed!). Jamie, thanks again for all your energy, time, and effort to help us improve our understanding of these magnificent creatures and investigate solutions to depredation for fishermen!