Because of its location along the Gulf Stream and its pleasant winter water temperatures, Jupiter, Florida gets a huge influx of different species of sharks—and it’s considered by many to be America’s shark diving capital. But when people dive there, they also witness something unique to the rest of the world: masses of lemon sharks gathering annually for what's known as a shark aggregation (kind of like a shark social circle.)
“When I found the lemon shark aggregation for the first time back in January, 2001, I was dumbfounded by the fact that I was looking at two, three, four-dozen lemon sharks all laying on the sand like cars in a busy parking lot," said Walt Stearns, the underwater photographer who discovered this phenomenon. "It’s a highly unique event to see sharks come together in a large number. It’s like a social event.”
However, all is not well for the sharks. Scientists that have studied the Jupiter area claim shark numbers have dropped dramatically in the past few years. They believe that this is due to authorities allowing commercial and recreational fishing at a time when the sharks are most concentrated.
This year—after two years of moving the shark fishing season to the summer—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) opened the Atlantic coast commercial and recreational shark fishing season on January 1, right in the middle of this shark gathering.
NOAA asserts that the data they’ve received from scientists studying the area doesn’t show anything conclusive, and that NOAA’s studies don’t reveal any correlation between the decline in shark numbers and the timing of the fishing seasons. Although NOAA can't provide an actual number for the lemon sharks population in the Atlantic, the agency claims, based on a 2009 study, that the population is stable.
Since 2010 though, researchers studying the Jupiter area say that the number of tagged sharks returning there annually has decreased dramatically. They say this is either because they're migrating somewhere else or because they're dead. But they claim that after years of a relatively steady return rate, these sharks have most likely been killed as a result in the change to the fishing protocol.
Randy Jordan, a veteran diver who takes divers from all over the world to see these sharks, said that the shark sport diving industry brings in millions more in sustainable income to local economies than the revenue from commercial and recreational shark fishing. According to NOAA, the 2014 total revenue of the entire commercial shark fishery in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico was about $2 million.
“One thing we need to learn in America is what they've learned in the Bahamas and Fiji and all around the world,” said Jordan. “That shark ecotourism is so much more valuable than a dead shark. A shark that’s out there, I can take people to see, they keep paying over and over and over. And they stay in the hotels and they come in from all over the world to see these sharks, it’s a very valuable asset.”
When Jupiter locals heard about NOAA’s decision to change the fishing season opening to January, they decided to take action. For instance, Scott Taylor, a long-time commercial fisherman who’s fished the Florida waters for years, decided to not fish for sharks in the Jupiter area this time.
Furthermore, underwater photographer Richard Apple started a petition to stop this new opening date for shark fishing. The petition garnered international attention, attracting almost 18,000 signatures from 40 different countries.
Despite the petition, the season still opened, allowing commercial fishermen to catch and kill 36 to 45 sharks per vessel, per day.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: NICOLÁS IBARGÜEN
PRODUCER: LARA FERNÁNDEZ
CORRESPONDENTS: NICOLÁS IBARGÜEN AND MADISON STEWART
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: JORGE VASQUEZ
EDITOR AND POST PRODUCTION SUPERVISOR: DARWIN PHILLIPS
ANIMATOR: MERIELEN BURBANO
Born and raised in Spain, Lara is a digital producer and writer for Fusion — covering stories in culture and technology as well as in-depth environmental issues across the globe.
Nicolás Ibargüen is an environmentalist and director of the Planet Initiative of the Americas Business Council Foundation, an organization that supports innovative social and environmental impact projects.
He is the environmental Correspondent for Fusion and Univision.
Nicolás organizes expeditions and events with world leaders to raise awareness about our relationship with the planet. He produced the award-winning documentary “Amazon Gold” and he is a board member of NRDC’s Voces Verdes and the Humane Society International. He was the Editor and Publisher of Poder Magazine.