Cate Ells, a shortfin mako shark being tracked by OCEARCH, is likely to have been caught and killed by fishermen off the East Coast of the United States. On June 30, 2015, at 1:31 a.m., Cate Ells’ tracker pinged from New Bedford Harbor, America’s leading fishing port since 1999. This port is home to various fishermen, including trawlers, longliners and gillnetters, all of which pose great threats to sharks. Prior to this ping, the last ping sent from Cate Ells’ tracker was located off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland on June 20, 2015, representing an approximately 275 nautical mile or 509 kilometer journey in just 10 days. This distance would denote the longest recorded travel by the shark between pings.
Shortfin makos (Isurus oxyrinchus) are considered the most popular shark species to eat. They are highly valued for their meat and fins, and their biological characteristics render them extremely susceptible to fishing pressure. Shortfin makos are often the only shark species retained when incidentally caught by pelagic longliners.
Though the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List classifies shortfin makos as globally vulnerable, or at risk of becoming endangered, and assesses their populations as decreasing, these sharks are still caught in fairly high numbers in the United States. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, almost 200,000 pounds of shortfin makos were commercially landed in 2013. Shortfin makos are considered pelagic sharks and there is an annual quota of over 1 million pounds of pelagic sharks, excluding blue sharks and porbeagles. Despite this large quota, NOAA Fisheries encourages the live release of shortfin makos because of their relative scarcity.
Cate Ells was a particularly celebrated shark because she was tagged by Wendy Benchley, wife of the late Peter Benchley, author of “Jaws,” during the second annual Shark’s Eye Tournament, a catch-and-release shark tournament in Montauk, New York. Cate Ells was tagged on July 13, 2014, and was named after Wendy’s granddaughters, Catharine and Eloise. She was then considered a young mako at only 6’6” and has traveled approximately 13,935 miles since being tagged.
The two U.S. OCEARCH sharks that have been confirmed as caught and killed by fishermen were originally tagged in the first annual Shark’s Eye Tournament. The first, Rizzilient, tagged in July 2013, was also a shortfin mako. She sent her last few pings from a town located on the coast of Portugal in March 2014. It is believed that Rizzilient was caught by longliners.
Beamer, a blue shark also tagged in 2013, received his name from the Montauk Public School’s 6th grade class. His last signal was sent from Costa Rica in mid-June 2014. It was later discovered that he was caught and killed legally by a Costa Rican commercial longliner that utilized a 60-mile longline with 3,500 circle hooks.
Rizzilient and Beamer highlight the danger that sharks face when they leave U.S. waters, as both were caught by fisheries operating abroad. However, what is particularly disturbing about the potential capture of Cate Ells, is that it would likely represent the first OCEARCH shark caught by U.S. fishermen, highlighting the risks of bycatch and the difficulties researchers face in trying to learn more about these majestic creatures. The June 30 ping has temporarily been removed from the OCEARCH website as they investigate whether it was a faulty ping or Cate Ells was caught by fishermen.