What a Catch!
While some may have to wait until August for Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” to see some of the sharp-toothed beasts of the ocean, local residents can find them right in their own backyard. A local fisherman hooked a great white shark just a mile off shore last weekend and the baby Jaws wasn’t his only catch.
Steve Fernandez of Breezy Point set off on his friend’s boat, The Seabuster, on Sunday, July 22 as his friends, Pat Butera and Lawrence Bennin, of Rockaway, wanted to experience shark fishing for the first time. They got more than expected when they reeled in a great white, the type of shark made famous by the 1975 Spielberg film, “Jaws.” However Fernandez’s catch wasn’t quite as threatening. He says the shark he caught was just a baby at 3-feet long and 80 pounds. It took all of three minutes to reel in after it was hooked.
However the catch was still thrilling for the longtime fisherman and his friends. Fernandez has caught sharks before, but never a great white. “We didn’t realize it was a great white until we got it to the boat. I was super, super, super excited,” he said after realizing what he had hooked. “I’ve seen them before, but I never had the opportunity to have one five inches from my face.”
Fernandez says he has seen great whites in the water and the men even spotted a 10-footer during their trip. “It was so funny. One of my friends was asking if we have great whites here and then an hour later, we had one,” Fernandez said.
As great white sharks are protected by New York State Law, Fernandez had to release it, but he says he would have released it regardless. “I wouldn’t keep it anyway. They’re protected. Once you hook them, you’re not allowed to bring them out of the water. Even if it was legal, I wouldn’t keep it. It was just super awesome to be able to take pictures and watch it swim away.”
After reeling the shark in, Fernandez tagged it so that researchers and other fisherman can keep track of it. The tag includes information like where it was located, when it was caught and the shark’s condition. “Down the line, if someone else catches it and sees the tag, they can take it out and I would get a phone call with someone saying something like ‘the shark you caught was caught 10 years later off of Spain.’ Every shark we release, we try to put on a tag,” Fernandez said.
“It actually swam in the direction of the beach,” Fernandez said of the great white after its release. He and his friends caught a total of seven sharks that day, all within a mile or two of the beach. Fernandez said they were a mile off of the busy Beach 116th Street when they hooked baby Jaws. They also caught five blue sharks up to 225 pounds and a 140 pound thresher shark that day.
While the friends released the great white and the blue sharks, they kept the thresher. Fishermen are allowed to keep one shark per trip, Fernandez said. “I don’t keep fish too often but since it was my buddy’s first shark, we kept it. Shark meat is very good when you throw it on the barbecue. It tastes like swordfish,” he added.
While seven sharks in one day may seem like a large haul, Fernandez says he has caught more than that and much bigger ones. “We’ve caught more sharks than what we caught on Sunday and bigger ones, but never so close to the beach. We were right off the beach on Sunday.” The following day, he caught a 400-pound thresher shark that took more than two hours to reel in.
Fernandez says the abundance of sharks recently is due to the same reason that Rockaway has seen an increase in whales and dolphins. The local menu is good. “They’re all here for the same reason, for a bait fish called bunker. They come in June and July and migrate past Rockaway. The dolphins, whales, sharks and striped bass eat them. It’s not like these sharks are just swimming around aimlessly,” he said. Fernandez said that they caught and used the bunker to hook the sharks they caught over the weekend.
While the news of sharks may instill fear in some, Fernandez says the shark sightings are a good thing. “To me it’s a very good sign. The water is cleaner. The ecosystem is better. It’s nice to see them. Everyone has to keep in the back of their mind that when you’re swimming, you’re in the shark’s backyard. I wouldn’t go flapping around like a seal on a surfboard, but it’s not going to keep me out of the water.”