Topsail Island recreational fishermen collaborate with NOAA on a shark tag and release program.
Say the word shark at the beach and most folks run from the water. Say it to Ryan Gleason and Eamonn Garber, and they run straight into the water.
Gleason and Garber love sharks — tiger sharks, dusky sharks, blacktip sharks, hammerheads and more — and they deeply respect the animals’ power.
The two fishermen work with Drifter Sportfishing and Charters, owned by veteran Kyle Kirkpatrick, aka “Captain KK.” Based in Sneads Ferry, Drifter Sportfishing and Charters offers inshore and offshore charters as well as land-based shark-fishing guide services.
Gleason and Garber’s respect for sharks drives both their work as shark-fishing guides with Drifter and their work with the Apex Predator Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).
The federal shark-tagging program began in 1962 as a collaboration among recreational anglers and commercial fishermen to collect geographic range, longevity and movements of coastal sharks. Most taggers in the program are recreational fishermen. “Scientists can analyze data while we do the dirty work,” Garber says.
Gleason says shark fishing is huge on Topsail Island. “Every night, there’s someone shark fishing,” he says. The two former Marines met shark fishing on the beach one night.
The two anglers often finish each other’s sentences as excitement about a tagged shark takes over the conversation. Garber pulls out his phone to show a picture of a dusky shark they tagged one-night last summer. A dusky is one of his favorite sharks, along with sand tigers. “Sand tigers will eat anything,” Gleason says with a laugh. “I call them Old Reliable. In April, May and early June, you are guaranteed to catch one.”
Garber nods, “They are big, scraggly. They are like the big boy on a Harley. Rough, tough and ready to roll, but they aren’t going to do anything. They’re powerful with those big necks and jaws. And their teeth profile — it’s teeth everywhere.”
Garber pulls up another picture on his phone. A wide-open mouth with rows of razor-sharp teeth fills the phone screen. “They are awesome!” he says.
They’re also vulnerable. According to NOAA Fisheries, 19 species of sharks are vulnerable, including sand tiger sharks. Sand tiger populations are decreasing, and only a small number of them are tagged. This adds to the fun, Garber and Gleason say.
Myths about sharks and shark fishing abound: Sharks are a nuisance, sharks should be killed because they ruin fishing lines, sharks attack swimmers. Garber and Gleason find that working with the NOAA shark-tagging programs helps them fight the myths by showing residents and tourists how they tag a fish, letting people see the process from catch through tag and finally release.
“I started tagging to have easier conversations with tourists who often don’t understand sharks,” Gleason says. “Tagging is good for the community, good for the shark population. There are responsible, ethical ways to go about shark fishing, by catch and release. The program is a really good way to get us, the public, involved in research. NOAA sends you all kinds of information when you start.”
Gleason holds out brochures on catch and release techniques, a compliance guide for recreational fishing, identification cards illustrating prohibited species and various shark identification cards.
People often make the mistake of thinking the fishermen are chumming from the beach. Gleason says it’s an accusation they hear regularly, but they don’t do it because it’s illegal and pointless.
“If we could bring the sharks in, I would be a lot better at doing it,” Garber says as Gleason laughs. “We could bring them to beach, and it would be a 15-minute charter.”
The shark-fishing guides will come to you if you’re staying on the ocean, or they’ll pick a prime spot where you can meet them. In this type of fishing, Gleason and Garber deploy baits between 100 to 500 yards utilizing a kayak to get them out there. From there it’s a waiting game for the fish.
Many of the sharks they catch are caught in very shallow water, which can freak out some visitors, especially those who see all sharks as “ruthless killers.”
“People see us catch sharks at those depths and get scared,” Gleason says. “But what they don’t understand is that a three-foot blacktip is terrified of you. You are five feet long! They are not looking for a giant chunk of meat, they are eating mullet.”
Sometimes a shark is caught, tagged and released in 15 to 20 minutes. Other times, the shark is tired and disoriented. “We had to swim with a hammer for 45 minutes before it would go out past the swell. Each time the fish turned back toward shore, the path of least resistance, we turned it back toward the ocean, but we were careful to stay out of the way,” Gleason says.
Sharks are a highly migratory species, so the type of sharks that are caught off Topsail Island varies by time of the year. Most sharks spend the winter in Florida or farther south. In winter great whites, sandbars, duskies and sand tigers abound, but the big target sharks that people want to catch are hammerheads, which appear in the summer with a run again in September. Tiger sharks can be found from April to September.
In 2017 scientists in New Jersey tagged a sand shark caught on a long line. This past summer Gleason and Garber re-captured the same shark and then gathered additional growth and migration data before releasing the shark. Re-capture is the whole idea, Gleason says; otherwise, you just have a shark with a piece of plastic in it.
The program tags are small, about an inch and half of plastic, on a line with an aluminum holder on the end to affix inside the shark using a small metal tool that looks a bit like a crochet needle. Each plastic tag carries a number to identify the shark. The corresponding paper card sent to NOAA Fisheries records species, location date, total length, weight, fork length, sex, offshore or beach, fish condition, tackle used, angler and captain.
“I’m excited to see if any of the greater hammers and tigers we tagged this year are recaptured and if so where they are,” Gleason says.
In tagging the sharks they catch and release, these two local fishermen not only have fun but play a part in helping NOAA learn more about Atlantic sharks and helping several species survive.
Want to shark fish?
For more information on land-based shark fishing or other charter trip drifteroffshore.com.
For more information on NOAA shark-tagging program or to see descriptions of the sharks Garber and Gleason tag, go to fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-mid-atlantic/atlantic-highly-migratory-species/shark-identification-cooperative-shark-0#sand-tiger-shark