(c) Deron Verbeck
By Jennifer Stahl, March 31, 2022
Photos: Jose with daughter (left) and inspecting a shark tagging pole (right).
Jose Vasquez, a seasoned fisheries observer, provided us with some perspectives on tagging sharks in the high-seas tuna and swordfish longline fisheries from Hawaii. As a fisheries observer, Jose works at-sea aboard commercial fishing vessels to collect data on catch composition of target and bycatch species and to record information about gear configuration and fishing effort that is used in management and research. Fishing trips in Hawaii’s longline fisheries typically last a few weeks and present inherent challenges with tight living quarters (that are typically less than 5 star), inclement weather, foreign crews that may not speak English, and repetitive work. These challenges result in high rates of turnover for professional observers. However, Jose has made a career out of it with over 20 years under his belt. Jose has worked in Hawaii for 12 of those years! His experience, skills and knowledge are extremely valuable. As a result, he is often asked to take on special projects by the regional observer coordinators and scientists, such as tagging sharks for the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s shark post release survival project led by Dr. Hutchinson.
To be able to effectively and safely tag sharks from a commercial longline vessel, you need good communication, judgement, balance, physical strength, confidence and impeccable timing. Jose possess lots of these skills, which has enabled him to successfully tag 71 sharks for this project (and counting as he is currently at sea with some tags!). Jose knows the importance of good communication and he has learnt to communicate to crew members with minimal English how to safely orientate the shark, as well as determine when the sea conditions and the shark’s condition and behavior are appropriate for successfully getting the tag on. He also knows when to make the call to abort the mission and let a shark go if it appears the shark’s survival may be impacted by the tagging.
So how did Jose end up our star shark tagger? He has always been interested in science and began studying it in college. But after a couple years without sufficient funds to cover costs, he joined the navy where he got his first taste of the ocean. He worked as a military medic, but the field wasn’t a fit. So he eventually discharged from service and worked in construction. But again, he sought something different, so he went back to school to finish his degree in science. As he looked for jobs, he quickly realized science jobs paid ½ of what he was making in construction. But one day he stumbled upon an advertisement for a job as an Alaskan fisheries observer—good wages, travel, adventure, meet new people, work at sea! This sounded like a good fit and was just what he had been looking for! So for the next 8 years he worked as a fisheries observer in Alaska and loved the work. He experimented with land-based office jobs, but didn’t care for the 9 to 5. And he tried a field job as crew leader for a private company, but realized his staff didn’t have a science background and the data quality wasn’t very good. He was drawn back to observing, where he could collect quality scientific data, be his own boss, have a flexible schedule, and spend time at sea, which he truly loves.
Jose has been tagging sharks with the Hawaii Community Tagging Program (HCTP) for the last 6 years and was in Mel's very first observer training class. Mel was teaching observers to tag sharks on longline vessels to determine their post-release survival. Jose’s first tag went on a blue shark in April 2016. Since then, he has tagged 71 sharks: 31 blues; 20 bigeye threshers; 13 shortfin mako; and 7 oceanic whitetip sharks. With all of this experience tagging sharks from commercial fishing vessels, Jose’s insights have been incredibly helpful and valuable for the project and for future studies. He informed us that oceanic whitetip sharks are the most challenging to tag, as these sharks come to the vessel either dead or in good condition and fighting hard. Additionally, they have very thick skin, and he noted that it can be difficult to get the tag in the animal as it requires a lot of force. He’s also found it is hard to tag large, healthy bigeye thresher sharks in the 7 to 8 foot range as these sharks are powerful and can inflict potential injuries with their long whip-like tail. Bigeye thresher sharks sometimes come up tail-hooked as they use their tail to hit and stun prey. Jose has observed that tagging is more difficult for tail-hooked sharks as they are oriented perpendicular to the boat with their head down.
Photos: Jose tagging a bigeye thresher shark in left photo and a blue shark in right photo.
Jose also helped us with a gear trial study in 2019 where we compared catch rates of target and non-target species on monofilament and wire leaders. We also compared survival rates of sharks discarded with monofilament trailing gear to those discarded with wire leaders. This work was extremely informative and influential in helping the Hawaii longline fishing fleet to switch from wire to monofilament leaders to proactively improve the survival of threatened oceanic whitetip sharks. The idea is that incidentally caught sharks will be able to bite through the monofilament line and escape in good condition. With this recent switch in gear, Jose has noticed some beneficial changes in fisher behavior. Some fishers are now slowing down the boat to bring sharks in close to the vessel to retrieve weights (required on branchlines to quickly sink hooks and prevent seabird's taking the bait). If branchlines are cut just below the weight (on monofilament branchlines), there is less trailing gear attached to a shark. In contrast, when wire leaders are used, the common practice for fishers is to cut the line just below the snap, meaning a shark may have ~ 10 m of line still attached to it (because the branchline attaches to the mainline). In addition, Jose has noticed this gear switch translating into quicker gear repairs for fishers.
There has been some concern about crew safety from the weights flying back at the boat if sharks bite through the monofilament. However, Jose sees this as more of a potential issue on vessels that target swordfish and not the more prevalent tuna target trips. During swordfish trips, fishers tend to operate at full steam when they are hauling back gear unless they catch a swordfish. Because the vessel is moving fast and the gear is relatively shallow on swordfish boats, ‘bite-offs’ may be more of a safety concern as weights may fly back with force. However, during tuna-target operations, it is necessary for fishers to slow down to determine if a shark or fish are hooked as gear is deeper. If a shark bites through the line from deeper depths, and with gear moving more slow, the flyback will likely have reduced forced and be les dangerous to crew.
Jose has seen evidence that some sharks that interact with the Hawaii longline fisheries survive and may even come back to depredate (take) caught fish or bait for a second or even third time! He first noticed this on one of his gear trial trips where he was tagging a lot of sharks. He went to tag a blue shark and noticed it was already tagged! He apparently had tagged the shark earlier in the same trip. And recently with some fishers bringing sharks in closer to retrieve their weights with the switch to monofilament gear, he has been getting a better look at the jewelry some sharks are wearing. So far, he has seen blue and bigeye thresher sharks with two or even three hooks. He is impressed that these sharks are healthy enough to survive these multiple fishing interactions.
Fisheries observers, and especially Jose, have been integral in collecting data that have shown that shark survival can be improved through best handling practices and with monofilament leaders. This has resulted in management actions to switch from wire to monofilament leaders and recommendations to remove trailing gear while sharks remain in the water. These changes in fishing practices can allow Hawaii’s longline fisheries to operate into the future while conserving pelagic shark populations that are integral to the health of our oceans.
We are forever grateful for Jose's expertise and help collecting this extremely important scientific data. The tagging data not only provides information on shark survival, but also, on their movements and habitat preferences. We are currently using this tagging data to create species distribution models that can be used to help manage shark populations, especially in the face of a changing climate.
Jose feels that collecting good quality data is important and if he isn’t willing to put in the effort to collect quality data then that would be the time to quit. We hope Jose sticks to his high standards and we feel fortunate to be able to continue collaborating with him into the future. We are very grateful for all his hard work and commitment with observing and shark tagging!