A Conversation with a Shark Fisherman
February 11, 2019
Kip Evans: Tell me about yourself and what you do for a living.
Juan Lucas: My name is Juan Pablo Lucas and I’m a fisherman based out of Puerto San Carlos. I also live here, in La Paz, Baja California. I’ve been a fisherman my whole life. We were raised here when my mom and my dad took us over. During our childhood, we built small wooden or cork barges. We made small nets. We worked with basically what we saw around, you know? We did it because our parents did that…they made nets and fished. That was my life and I’ve been fishing ever since. We used to go for anything we could get, but now we have rules. We’re constantly trying to learn everything that’s going on in the protected areas.
Kip Evans: Imagine you have a magic wand that allows you to see the future. What will the ocean look like in ten years’ time?
Juan Lucas: You know, the way I see it now, being optimistic, shark populations might be healthier in ten years than they are now because there are laws and regulations in place. We’re working under fishing rules. For instance, we’re trying to take out [commercial] fishing boats because we know they conduct massive killings. There are species they don’t fish – they just kill. So as far as fishing, we’re making an attempt at sustainable fishing, with hooks and lines. In general terms, I see improvements because whale sharks attract a lot of tourists which in turn generate employment. Regarding the sharks, that’s the reason we work for people like Dr. James Ketchum of Pelagios Kakunja, so we’re able to find areas that can be blocked to prevent shark fishing. Of course, we know many people, many fishermen, are terrified because they think they’ll run out of fish, but no. The small areas where sharks get together are blocked during the season when they give birth. I’m confident that it’ll be just fine in every aspect.
KE: If you could send a message to all the fishermen in the world, what would you say to them?
JL: Well, I’d tell all the fishermen in the world to raise awareness and to think very carefully about what we’re doing because most fishermen just think about destroying each other as we’ve been taught and as we’ve learned our whole lives. But, they should really think about what we’re doing here and try to take out what we’re going to use, not to kill fish we won’t use.
KE: How do you perceive the ocean has changed during the last 20 years or so?
JL: Well, I’m 37 now. When I was about ten years old, I remember my dad and uncles fished a lot and they caught plenty of sharks. As we were growing up, we fished sharks just to learn. We did it just for the sake of doing it. Whereas now we do it because we have families and it’s our job, you know? Now that we really know how to fish you can tell the difference because we don’t catch half the amount of fish they did back then. Production has decreased greatly.
KE: Why do you think this happened? What is the cause of this decrease in shark species?
JL: Well, regarding sharks, I think most of this is because of boats and big industries. Riverside fishermen like us catch small amounts. In a year, we get maybe about two tons of fin shark meat a year, but we know boats get between 50 and 100 tons in one catch. So, we think the big boats are responsible. We don’t mean to point fingers or accuse them, but we do consider them to be responsible for the fact that the fish are disappearing so quickly. Regarding fish, it also depends on the species. There are a lot of predators as well. Right now, we’re having trouble with tuna boats because they’re taking all the bait. If sharks come here for the bait, and there’s none left, they won’t come near the shore. We also have a problem with shrimp boats because the area we work in is small. They come every year around November and the shrimp boats just storm the place. They go through an area and make a sweep. In fact, they have a regulation that’s called “exclusion” in which they can’t fish manta rays or loggerheads, but they take that out. Once they leave the port, they take it out and catch anything. That’s our biggest problem, commercial boats mainly.
KE: You’re a fisherman. Tell me what species you fish. How is a typical day in your life and what techniques do you use?
JL: It depends a lot on the season, so to speak. My brother and I are always out from January to May, when the closed season starts, and we work on sharks. We use a system called simpler, which consists of only one line and one float with a single hook. We use about 15 to 20 floats and we put two hooks in each one. That’s enough for us to work. We’re not aiming for big amounts. If we get five to six animals a day that’s enough. At best. There are times we hardly catch enough. For several months we’ve been doing research. We work with a few men from the University of California, Santa Cruz and we do research at the San José Estuary. We’re looking into the hawksbill sea turtle and its behavior and we’re also searching for its nesting site because it’s almost extinct – there are barely any of them left. We’re also working with Mongolia and Cuba.
KE: How would you describe the process of what a fisherman takes a shark out of the water – the process where it gets caught in the long line – how many of you are in the crew and how do you do it? Additionally, if the animal remains alive, what does your process look like?
JL: The process begins when we arrive in the morning and set the bait in the afternoon. We have a process with fishing lines and hooks and we check back the following day. If we get a large animal we make sure the equipment is ready. We get the hook with the hand. We actually never hook it before getting it up because it’s extremely dangerous. You can break your hand. Sometimes when it’s alive and it’s strong and shakes a lot we leave it there for a while to tire it out. Then we bring it next to the boat and when it’s close to us, we hit it on the head with a big stick. We’ve taken 15 to 20 minutes at the most to kill a large animal.
KE: Have you ever swam in the ocean with live sharks around you?
JL: No, never. We do get a little scared because of what we see on TV, you know? And because of what we believe, that they can eat you, but we know that’s not true, they won’t eat you.
KE: Have you ever felt bad or guilty for killing an animal like that? Are they beautiful to you?
JL: They are, actually. Now that we’re working in preservation we see things differently. When we see a large animal and kill it, we think about how long it would take for it to grow and so, we think differently. And we really do feel sorry for them but we also need to work and make a living.
KE: If you had an extra income, would you continue fishing sharks?
JL: If I had an extra income, I believe so, but I’d also look for a job in the sea. I honestly think if it wasn’t in the sea I wouldn’t be happy.
KE: Do you think science, preservation, ecotourism, all these opportunities fishermen can get are a means for the oceans to prosper again; to become sustainable?
JL: I think when we’re given opportunities like those they’ll eventually pay off. We have a sheltered area and we’re seeing that right there. We see the fish have developed a lot and we have a good amount of fish in the areas we set up. That’s why we have these closed seasons much like in Cuba, which until seven or eight years ago has been ignored, and now it’s been recognized and you can clearly see there are results. Now, we need a good way of managing all of that.
KE: Now imagine I have no idea why sharks are being hunted. Why do you think people go after sharks? What’s the demand? What do you use sharks for in Mexico?
JL: We really don’t know what sharks are used for in Mexico because they’re mostly taken out of the country. We know they’re taken to Guadalajara when they’re fresh and then they get processed for tacos. We really don’t know much more about its use; that’s all the information we have. We really don’t know for sure about the rest. But we do know about the fins, they go out to Japan, to China.
KE: What is the fin used for?
JL: Everyone says they use it for soup. I’ve never tried it but they say it’s not that good anyway. Some of my friends told me it’s not so tasty.
KE: Do you think shark hunting is much more profitable than any other product we can find in the Gulf of California?
JL: I think there are more expensive products. For instance, in the Pacific, there’s the abalone, the haliotis. We don’t have that here. I think there’s a larger demand for them; they’re more costly and get exported the most.
Big blue thanks go to the Marisla Foundation Paul M. Angell Family Foundation and Paradise Foundation for their support of Mission Blue’s shark work in the Gulf of California. And, of course, thank you to Scubapro for always outfitting our expeditions team with the best in the business.