Shark Conservation Catches On In Montauk

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To overcome her fear of sharks, Stephanie Whiston dove right in with them.

Slipping beneath the ocean’s surface in her scuba gear, any “Jaws”-like terror she had for the sleek, toothy fish evaporated. And the Montauk resident and Irish native, an avid underwater photographer who has now logged more than 1,000 dives, developed a deep respect and awe for this often demonized denizen of the seas.

Along with this respect came an understanding for the need for conservation of a marine animal that is hunted at a rapid rate. More than 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year, threatening to eliminate them from the oceans, according to National Geographic. The Spring 2013 issue of “Alert Diver” magazine says that 90 percent of all large wild fish have vanished from the seas as a result of “devastatingly efficient industrial farming.”

“Our motto is ‘We take pictures and leave bubbles,” Ms. Whiston said of the divers’ creed of leaving habitat undisturbed.

Encountering sharks on a dive is rare, she explained. But when they do appear, they are often afraid of divers’ bubbles and activity, she said. And, although she said she would not get in the water with a great white or a bull shark, most sharks are actually filter feeders, like the whale shark, not fearsome predators. They also reproduce slowly, meaning they can’t keep up with the rates at which they’re pulled from the water. She is convinced that a shark once smiled at her as she snapped its photo, she said with a laugh.

Although she supports saving the sharks, Ms. Whiston is not a radical and is not anti-shark tournament—”I’m not the person out on the corner waving the sign saying, ‘Don’t kill the sharks,’” She pointed out. Hers is a more peaceful presentation to raise awareness.

Throughout the month of July, an exhibit featuring her underwater photos from the past two decades of diving is on display at the Montauk Library, her first time showing her work on the East End. In addition to sharks, the photos span an array of sea life, including frogfish, stingrays, sea lions and turtles. A multimedia presentation and discussions will also take place on Wednesday, July 10, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and on Sunday, July 14, from 2:30 to 5 p.m.

Sharks will take center stage at the end of the month in Montauk, at the Shark’s Eye tournament, which will be held on Saturday, July 27, and Sunday, July 28, and, for the first time, this year, it will feature a satellite tag tournament.

“We’re trying to replace the dead shark that people pose next to with a live one. They can pose with it on their iPhones and say, “This is what I caught and it’s swimming off of Bermuda,” said Rav Freidel, a self-described shark-hugger and member of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk.

The sharks in this tournament are to be caught using safer, circle hooks, and eligible mako, thresher and blue sharks will be fitted with the tags, which will monitor their movements post-release. The anglers who catch them will get to name three tagged sharks, and a fourth will be named by Montauk schoolchildren. The sharks’ movements will be trackable by the public online via an OCEARCH global shark tracker.

The Concerned Citizens of Montauk, Mr. Freidel said, has been trying to restore the shark population. “If it succeeds, that keeps people coming to Montauk. It’s good for business, good for the economy and, of course, it’s good for the sharks.”

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