First Published In summer 2011
CEFAS (Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science) is a marine science centre in Lowestoft that works on researching and conserving the seas.
Its an executive agency of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Some of its work involves catching, tagging and releasing fish to investigate their behaviour and life cycles.
Earlier this summer, one of the CEFAS staff, Stuart Hetherington, contacted me to see if I could help them with their porbeagle shark tagging program. Hed been given my name by Nigel Proctor (Doc) from this forum.
The CEFAS plan is to catch at least ten porbeagle off the south-west coast and several in the North Sea, and to fit them all with satellite tags.
The tags collect data on movement, temperature and pressure and are timed to €œpop off€ from their shark, float to the surface and transmit their data back to CEFAS.
Next to nothing is known about porbeagle movements and behaviour in the North Sea, so the results from the tags will be very interesting. We jumped at the chance to help out on this project!
Stuart met me at my house on 22nd June, and ran through the details of the project and how CEFAS envisaged it all working. The welfare of the porbeagle was absolutely paramount and Stuart explained that they planned to take every step they could to mitigate stress to the shark.
This would mean me playing the fish hard to the side of the boat as quickly as possible, then carefully lifting it aboard and protecting it with foam, where it would be tagged as rapidly as possible prior to release.
One of the areas that CEFAS were clear on was the requirement to use circle hooks, rather than conventional Js. This was to ensure no sharks were gut hooked; which is more likely with J hooks.
CEFAS trips began in the South-West but did not get off to a good start: three out of five days booked at sea were lost to bad weather.
Despite early July being the traditional prime time for porbeagle, none was caught by rod and line in their first two days at sea. This put extra emphasis on the North Sea trips.
Fishing-wise, Id never been put under pressure to perform before so when Stuart enquired as to whether we were definitely going to catch porbeagle, I had to remind him that this is fishing but I would do my very best!
Anyway, Ill give you a rundown of each of the trips and how things unfolded.
Tuesday 20th July
Crew: Richard Ward; his crewmate John Wilcox; Stuart and Vicky from CEFAS; my regular fishing mate, John Hudson; me; and a friend of mine, Linda, who is a keen river fisher.
She had never been sea fishing out on the North Sea and was really keen to come along just to experience a days sharking.
I did warn her that it would be a long day, that there was no loo on board and that if she felt seasick, there was no turning back. Amazingly, she could not be dissuaded!
We all met in the car park at Whitby and by the time we had unloaded the fishing and tagging gear, which covered most of the boats central deck space, it was 6.30 am before we were under way.
Id brought lots of frozen mackerel with me so we had plenty for the days chum. We stopped half way out on the 9-mile mark and found there was any amount of fresh mackerel anyway, and we caught some fresh to use as deadbaits, should they be required later.
Out at sea, the weather was perfect: sea state slight; warm and sunny.
Linda had been absolutely fine on the two hour journey out to sea, but when we arrived at our offshore mark, and the boat lay at anchor, there was a change in movement, sufficient to make her go rather quiet and a little green round the gills.
The shark rods were in action from around 9 am and the morning passed with little of note, despite the chum trail oozing lazily away in the tide, from the buckets hung over the stern of the boat.
Linda, meanwhile, had stirred, and started to do her bit by adding to the chum trail at the bow of the boat€¦
Meanwhile the frying pan kept the rest of us well fed, as indeed it did on all our later trips!
Around lunchtime, Stuart enquired as to whether I expected to catch a shark that day. Since slack water was around 1.45 pm, I predicted that if we were going to catch, the most likely time was between 1 and 2.30 pm; basically on, or either side of, slack water.
The time ticked on, and all was quiet as we pondered whether my prediction might come true.
Around 1.30 pm, one of the rod butts on a shark rod lifted smartly off the deck, and the whole outfit was dragged towards the stern of the boat at a rate of knots.
The retaining safety leash then snapped taut and prevented the whole outfit going overboard.
By the time I reached the rod and unclipped the safety leash, it was clear that the shark was already well hooked, and with line screaming off the Tiagra 50 reel at high speed, the pressure was now on!
This sudden commotion brought Linda to her senses and the Velcro strap holding the thigh pad was promptly wrapped around her.
Linda had said how keen she was to experience the strength of a shark first hand; and now here she was! Although I had given her a dress rehearsal the previous evening of what to expect and how the drag on the reel operated, the strength of the shark when it ran out to sea made her nervous.
Her face said it all, and when the shark turned and ran uptide towards the boat, the line went slack and she thought it had come off.
Sensibly, she decided enough was enough and gave me the rod back. Id previously warned her about the shark getting under the boat and snagging the boats stern gear and she didnt fancy dealing with that.
Also, we couldnt risk losing this fish with the stakes so high, so I took over and leaned into it.
With the Tiagra 50 reel in high box I soon caught up with the shark and re-established a tight line on it.
Within 20 minutes, the shark was close to the boat and then the hard slog began.
To and fro the shark ran, from port to starboard and back again; probably seven or eight times. Each time it crossed under the boat, we just had to hope the line wouldnt snag on something.
Then down into the depths it went€¦ I felt the small of my back start to ache and beads of sweat ran off my forehead. You cant try to look even remotely cool in front of the camera with this game!
By this stage, wed seen the shark a few times, but every time I thought it was beat, it summoned up more energy to dive, or to run under the boat again.
Fifty minutes into the fight, the shark was on a short line and the wind-on rubbing leader was just on the reel, when the shark dived under the boat once more, then ran out to sea off the stern.
Then disaster: I saw the main line had got caught on the boats stern gear! I plunged the rod tip as deep as I could into the water and thankfully the mainline pulled free and contact was resumed. Phew!!
I had mentally started to count my chickens (which is always a dangerous thing) when the same thing happened again, not five minutes later. Luckily, a similar manoeuvre with the rod worked a second time too.
The change from 100lb braided mainline (that I used to use until this trip) to 80lb mono had all been worthwhile, as I know the braid would have parted with an encounter with the boats rudder like that .
Finally, after around an hour, it finally looked like we had our first shark ready for tagging!
The shark was brought aboard through the boats stern door. Once on board, the CEFAS guys got to work with the tagging.
Their overriding priority was the well-being of the shark, so all steps were taken to mitigate any damage to it. It was positioned on a foam mattress, and had its eyes covered with a foam pad.
The boats deck wash was sprayed down its mouth to give its gills as much oxygen as possible whilst it was out of the water.
With the tags fitted, the shark was returned to the sea, where she swam away strongly.
One down; nine more to catch!
The CEFAS staff were thrilled to see their first shark tagged. I was also elated that wed caught one for them.
But although we fished on through the rest of the afternoon, we didnt get any more runs. Nevertheless, spirits were high, and we decided on a team photo to round off what had been a great first day.
Before the next trip took place, we had several phone calls from CEFAS, and Stuart informed me that porbeagle were still proving hard to find off the south-west coast.
The pressure to perform in the North Sea was heightened!
Tuesday 17th August.
Crew: Richard Ward and John Wilcox; CEFAS staff Vicky and Joana; Nigel Proctor (Doc); and me.
The day started pretty much as before and expectations were high. There were plenty of mackerel and coley for bait and even an odd cod made an appearance!
Lunch was fresh mackerel, literally straight from the sea.
Whilst I normally use mackerel for bait, the coalfish we were catching were that bit bigger, so I put one of those out on a shark rod.
You can see the bait bridle rigged on an elastic band, which pulls the 18/0 circle hook into close contact with the bait once the tension is released. The gap between bait and hook in this picture is a bit misleading hence the explanation about the rubber band.
All was quiet until mid afternoon, when the ratchet sounded on the coley-baited rod.
I was on the rod in a flash. I threw the reel into free spool, flicked the ratchet off, and thumbed the spool to prevent an over run. The shark steadily took line.
Meanwhile Nigel was donning his thigh pad, in readiness for a tangle with his first ever porbeagle!
The fish had run a good fifty yards of line off, when I heard the ratchet on another rod shriek.
Two runs at once!! Rich, who was standing next to me already, grabbed the second rod. When I thought my shark had had sufficient time to take the bait, I slid the lever drag forward and felt the line draw tight.
Only then did I raise the rod, feeling the rod tip pull hard over against the weight of the running shark. But as quickly as the tip bent into its fighting curve, it sprang back.
I had that sickening hollow in my stomach that follows a missed opportunity. It was all over so quickly, I never even had the chance to pass the rod over to Nigel.
I wound in the limp line to find the coley bait had gone and the shark with it.
Meanwhile Richs shark was still taking line. Having seen what had happened to mine and knowing that circle hooks are not supposed to gut hook shark, Rich gave this fish twice as much time again.
When the lever drag was engaged, Rich had the misfortune to feel exactly what I had experienced only a minute or two earlier. Brief contact, – then a hook pull. We looked at one another in silence, totally gutted.
The next opportunity came late in the day, an hour before home time.
This time when the run came, we were determined to give the shark yet more line before engaging the reel. I was on the rod as soon as we had a take and I let the fish take three times the amount of line I would normally have done when using conventional J hooks.
Again the hook pulled out, but the bait must still have been attached, as the shark took the bait once again, causing line to be taken off the reel once more!
By this time, Nigel was ready and I passed the rod over to him, whilst the fish was still taking line.
Nigel experienced exactly the same as me. In fact, he had two more chances where he pulled the line tight on the shark, the hook pulled out, and then the shark took for a third and fourth time! Again and again, this resulted in a hook pull.
Finally the shark ignored the bait and that was Nigels chance over.
Amazingly, no sooner had he wound in the rod than we had yet another take! Surely this one must come good??
The fish ran something like 150 yards of line before Nigel tightened into it only for the hook to pull free- our fourth lost shark of the day.
Something was desperately wrong here, and I strongly suspected the circle hooks were the culprits. Looking at the gape of even the 18/0 circles and the thickness of the edge of a porbeagles jaw, Im convinced the circle hooks werent getting any purchase on the shark at all, and were just pulling clean out.
So there finished our second day, and a very frustrating one for all of us! The next two days fishing were frustrating in a different way: despite all the efforts we put in to chumming and baiting, we didnt get the slightest glimpse of a porbeagle. V
ery disappointing! Even so, none of this has dampened my enthusiasm for North Sea sharking. Ive thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and whilst it was as frustrating for me as it was for the CEFAS staff that we didnt boat more sharks for them, we certainly gave it our all.
Having had time to reflect now, the trips had seen some real highs and lows. It was thrilling to catch a shark for the CEFAS guys on the first day if only to show them first hand how we could do it in the North Sea, which remains very lightly shark-fished by recreational anglers.
It was also good to demonstrate how hard we work on a days sharking to try to maximise our chances. We are constantly catching mackerel in order to provide enough chum and keep distress signals in the water to attract shark.
Rich Ward works tirelessly throughout the day in smashing up the mackerel for the chum. Its no small task either. The baits are regularly changed and we do all we can to optimise chances throughout the day.
But the highs were not just fishing related. It was great meeting and spending time with the CEFAS staff. They were very tolerant of our Yorkshire sense of humour and really good fun to spend some days at sea with.
Stuart, Vicky and Joana all rolled their sleeves up to do their bit to deliver this project. This meant some very early mornings and long, long days at sea; not always in the best conditions, either. The rough seas certainly didnt help us.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that we encounter more sharks on calm, still days. Also, with the North Sea being so full of mackerel this year, I did start to question how our four shark baits could expect to be taken, with so much natural food available.
There is still a question mark over the circle hooks. We lost 80% of runs to these hooks. It would have been good to have experienced more runs another day on circles, just to give them a fair chance, but it wasnt to be. To be fair, they do get used successfully elsewhere in the UK on shark, but I just dont know what else any of us could have done to improve their hook up rate.
Overall, the CEFAS sharking trips hit my statistics hard. Before starting out, my trips over the past two years had seen an average of 1.75 porbeagle boated each trip. Now the average looks considerably worse at 0.73 sharks boated per day. Conditions permitting, I just hope to be out again next year trying to return my catch ratio to its former glory!