The Fate of Sharks

Russell Coles a crewman with a smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata). A kind of ray, sawfish are amazing creatures: they have thousands of sensory organs in their head and rostrum (saw) with which they can detect the magnetic fields of their prey. Largely due to shark fin soup fishermen (even though they're not sharks), they are now among the rarest group of marine fishes. Photo courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Russell Coles with a smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata). A kind of ray, sawfish are amazing creatures: they have thousands of sensory organs in their head and rostrum (saw) with which they can detect the electric fields of their prey. Popular as a source of “shark fins” for shark fin soup in Asian cookery (even though they’re not sharks), they are now an endangered species in most parts of the world. Photo courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

This is chapter 6 of Shark Hunter: Russell J. Coles at Cape Lookout.

The letters and diaries that my daughter Vera and I found at Coles Hill give us an especially good snapshot of Russell Coles’ hunts for sharks, rays and other fish at Cape Lookout in the period just before the First World War.

In a March 7, 1912 letter to Barton Bean, a curator of ichthyology at the Smithsonian, for instance, Coles none too humbly described how he went about his collecting work at the Cape.

“Most of my work is done in the calm waters of the Bight of the Cape…” he told Bean, “then a lot of my work is in the whaleboat in the very heavy breakers miles out on the Lookout Shoals…. I will say that I know that district as probably no other man knows it…. “

“I am living on board the little yacht out in the Bight of Cape Lookout, in fine shape, working harder than I have ever worked,” he told Bean four months later, on 12 July 1912.

In that same letter, Coles discussed his collecting methods and what he did to relax, Coles being Coles:

“Up to the present time my work has been of the very heaviest kind, with big haul net and harpoon, but I will soon put in an occasional day with fine nets on the small stuff; about the only sport that I have indulged in has been harpooning porpoise and that is real sport of a very high order as they surely do put up a great fight if not fastened in a vital spot.”

His letter reminds us: this was an age when people often believed that the sea’s wonders were infinite and inexhaustible.

Though I must say, I find that sentiment true among younger fishing people in every generation, but rarely among the old, who have seen more and know better.

The Porpoise Factories

By “porpoise,” Russell Coles actually meant the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Even marine scientists at that point used the terms “porpoise” and “dolphin” interchangeably.

You can find my article on the Wm. F. Nye Co.’s bottlenose dolphin fishery on Hatteras Island in the Jan. 2015 issue of the North Carolina Historical Review.

You can find my article on the Wm. F. Nye Co.’s bottlenose dolphin fishery on Hatteras Island in the Jan. 2015 issue of the North Carolina Historical Review.

In 1912, when Coles wrote that letter, it was 60 years prior to the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a groundbreaking federal law that has done much to preserve whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and other sea mammals in U.S. waters.

At that point, “porpoise factories”– commercial fisheries for bottlenose dolphins– had existed on islands around Cape Lookout on and off for 30 years.

Local fishermen harvested the dolphins most profitably for the unique oils in their jaws and in their melons, a football-shaped organ in the foreheads of dolphins and all toothed whales that is believed to play a central role in their ability to hunt prey and navigate their surroundings by echolocation.

Those special oils were refined and used for lubricating watches and clocks, navigational instruments and other fine machinery.

To my knowledge, the local islanders never hunted bottlenose dolphins for sport, however.

Generally speaking, local fishermen looked at the “porpoise factories” as a grisly, disdainful business, the kind of job that one only took because of poverty and lack of other options.

There is even a legend about a mysterious woman that warned the islanders to stop hunting dolphins late in the 19th century. In the story, she washed ashore near Cape Lookout and immediately began telling the locals that they should stop killing dolphins.

According to the tale, she swam with dolphins and seemed to be able to talk to them.

And– so one version of the story goes– when the islanders did not close down the local porpoise factory, she brought down upon them the great storm of 1899 that led to the island’s desertion– and she disappeared in the storm and was never seen again.

Hammerhead Sharks and Cownose Rays

Several years later, Russell Coles’ diary finds him still hard at work collecting marine fishes primarily for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. By that summer, he was treating it virtually as a full-time job, though I’m quite sure he never received any remuneration for it.

On June 21, 1916, he noted that he was catching and dissecting 60 cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus), a kind of eagle ray that migrates in large numbers into the Bight at Cape Lookout at that time of year.

Seen here in the Gulf of Mexico, cow nose rays are the rays that you're most like to see in an aquarium's touch tank. They're only 2-3 ft. in width and weigh approx. 25-35 lbs. They largely eat clams, oysters and other bivalves and are known for their long migrations-- in the late fall, these cow nose rays probably migrate to the waters off South America. Photo by Dorothy Birch

Seen here in the Gulf of Mexico, cownose rays are the rays that you’re most like to see in an aquarium’s touch tank. They’re only 2-3 ft. in width and weigh approx. 25-35 lbs. They largely eat clams, oysters and other bivalves and are known for their long migrations– in the late fall, these cownose rays probably migrate to waters off South America. Photo by Dorothy Birch

In his diary, Coles notes that he examined each of the cownose rays’ stomach contents and found them heavy with“the little clam-like shellfish (which has a length of less than an inch) that I only know by the local name of “coot cockle.”

On that day, he also hauled a minnow net in the sound “and caught some rather interesting and rare specimens but nothing that I have not already supplied to American Museum….”

The next day, he made five new harpoon handles and then went out onto Lookout Shoals to try them out.

Russell Coles with a skate (Rajas sp.) and fish for his dinner, Cape Lookout vicinity, ca. 1910. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Russell Coles with a skate (Rajas sp.) and fish for his dinner, Cape Lookout vicinity, ca. 1910. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Collecting was still a savage business, at least for Coles, and for him collecting and sport frequently went hand in hand.

In his diary, he wrote:

“Then went out to try my hand with the harpoon, only threw it twice, first got an 8 ft hammerhead shark, then a large black harbor porpoise, which gave good sport.”

The most common hammerhead shark on the NC coast is the scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini). Though typically solitary hunters, hammerheads often migrate in large schools. The scalloped hammerhead population has been in drastic decline from overfishing, with an estimated 75-90% of its population extirpated according to Coastwatch magazine

The most common hammerhead shark on the NC coast is the scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini). Though typically solitary hunters, hammerheads often migrate in large schools. The scalloped hammerhead population has been in drastic decline from overfishing, with an estimated 75-90% of its Atlantic Ocean population extirpated, according to Coastwatch magazine.

“Shockfish” and Spotted Eagle Rays

Five days letter, on June 26, 1916, Coles recorded in his diary that he spent the day haul seining for specimens three miles from Cape Lookout, on the beach at Shackleford Banks.

“I caught one fine example of shockfish (Narcine brasiliensis),” a species of electric ray known as the “Brazilian electric ray,” Coles noted.

He then ran his boat back to the Bight at Cape Lookout and inquired of a fishing crew there if they had caught any Narcine in their nets. Coles often made his rounds of the local fishermen to see if they caught interesting specimens in their nets, and this was not at all unusual.

In this case, the fishermen told him that they hadn’t seen any of the electric rays yet that summer.

Later that day, Coles made a notation in his diary that gives us a good sense of how careful his observations had been of sea life at the Cape.

He wrote:

“No Narcine were among them and as per my former writings and observations they are not due in the Bight until June 29.”

 For Coles every day at Cape Lookout was something new and exciting. For instance, his diary entry for the next day, June 27, 1916, reads:

“Out most of last night with big mackerel gill net and harpoons, hunting by phosphorescent fire…. Caught…Spanish mackerel and harpooned two 6 ft. sharks and one large male Aitobatus narinari, 5 ft 11 ½ inches in diameter. Slept nearly all day, as we are going out again tonight.”

Aitobatus narinari is the spotted eagle ray, a large ray that is one of the most beautiful you’ll ever see at the Cape. The largest can be up to 16 feet in length and have a wingspan of 10 feet.

Adult Spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) can be as long as 16 ft., have a wingspan of 10 ft. and weight more than 500 lbs.

Adult Spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) can be as long as 16 ft., have a wingspan of 10 ft. and weigh more than 500 lbs.

When Coles wrote of “phosphorescent fire,” he was referring to a phenomenon that you often see on summer nights at Cape Lookout and other warm ocean waters in which bioluminescent microorganisms make the water light up.

When I’m in those kinds of phosphorescent waters, I always feel as if I’m looking at a night sky full of a million fireflies.

Brazilian Electric Rays

The next night Coles was back at it. On June 29, 1916, his diary notes that he and Capt. Charlie Willis and their crew caught another Brazilian electric ray in “our big net.”

He also indicated in his diary that he had been hauling nets for the rays and inspecting local fishermen’s nets for them for seven years.

The next day, June 30, he “was miles out on the Lookout Shoals harpooning sharks & rays. Had some exciting sport but no specimens of museum value were secured.”

After a run of bad weather, Coles was at Lookout Shoals again on the 7th of July “with net & harpoon.”

His diary entry for the next day, July 8, gives an especially good sense of the almost frantic exuberance with which he went about collecting for the American Museum of Natural History.

“Ran out on Lookout Shoals at daylight…. Attempted to harpoon a large shark… but the rough breakers had the boat jumping so that I missed my cast.”

He ate breakfast, then:

“hauled big minnow net…. Then I fished for some time, alongside an old wreck with rod and reel… and made some exceedingly interesting captures for that method of fishing.”

In his diary he also recorded more casual observations of sea life.

On July 11, 1916, he wrote:

 “Saw a school of hundreds of Auxis thazard run ashore and die and I saw this same thing occur once before about 8 years ago. I only see this species about once in every 3 or 4 years…”

Auxis thazard is a species of tuna most often called “frigate mackerel” or “frigate tuna.” It is a slender, dark blue fish with a white belly that only grow about 2 feet in length and usually weigh 10 pounds or less.

Frigate tuna or frigate mackerel (Auxis thazard) are an important part of the food web in all the world's oceans. Courtesy, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Frigate tuna or frigate mackerel (Auxis thazard) are a relatively small species of tuna (usually no more than 27 inches in length), but they are an important part of the food web in all the world’s oceans. Courtesy, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Coles’ diary entries that summer also highlight some of the difficulties of collecting marine specimens at Cape Lookout.  Storms sometimes prevented him and Capt. Willis from collecting for days at a time.

At one point—on July 17—heavy waves came close to swamping his boat on a trip between Beaufort and Cape Lookout. He lost a whole cask of specimens.

Several weeks later, they ran into real danger in high seas probably along Lookout Shoals.

On August 12, 1916, Coles recorded in his diary:

“Had rather dangerous trip coming in as sea was too rough. Mart Lewis, my only man who could not swim was carried overboard and we had a rough time rescuing him in which Charlie got his hand quite badly hurt.”

Coles had a high tolerance for pain himself and for seeing pain in others. Capt. Willis’s injury must have been serious.

It was not the crew’s only injury.  A letter from Barton Bean to Coles dated Aug. 16, 1912, also refers to unspecified injuries of Coles and Willis at that time. Other letters that Vera and I found at Coles Hill refer even more obliquely to injuries acquired while shark hunting.

In addition, an undated post card that we found at Coles Hill shows a picture of the hospital in Morehead City. Marked in ink, Coles had written “my room” by one of the hospital’s second floor windows. He was evidently a patient there sometime between 1918 and 1925.

Postcard from Russell Coles of the Morehead City Hospital with "my room" marked in his hand. Whether Coles was in the hospital for a fishing injury or for his rheumatism or another ailment is not clear. He was evidently a patient sometime between 1918 and 1925. Though Dr. Benjmin Franklin Royal established the hospital in 1911, the original building only had 7 beds. The building on the postcard opened in 1918. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Postcard of the Morehead City Hospital with “my room” marked in Russell Coles’ hand. Dr. Benjmin Franklin Royal founded the hospital in a smaller building in 1911. The building on the postcard opened in 1918. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Hungry Sharks

Going back to the summer of 1916, Coles summarized his and his crew’s collecting efforts in a diary entry in mid-August.

Evidently he had intended to focus his collection efforts for the American Museum of Natural History that summer primarily on sharks, but it had not been his best summer for shark hunting partly because of unusually bad weather.

“Although this expedition was pursued for extensive work on sharks with harpoon and lance[,] yet with exception of first few weeks I have met with very poor success….”

He went on to make an observation about hunting hungry sharks versus well-fed sharks.

“While large schools of hungry sharks would at times rush in and hunt the field over and leave on account of scarcity of food supply, yet there is a vast difference between harpooning a sluggish, well fed shark and a lean half starved…moving shark….”

He explained:

“the hungry ones go dashing. . . through the roughest breakers of the shoals, while a well fed shark seeks calmer water and moves slowly with dorsal fin out and it is generally easy to approach them to within harpooning distance….”

Russell Coles bringing in a shark. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Russell Coles bringing in a shark. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Coles continued:

“… even then a well fed shark will not fight like a hungry one and most that I killed this summer showed upon examination to have almost entirely empty stomachs.”

The Future of Sharks and Rays

Coles concluded that part of his diary with a prophetic if somewhat ironic statement for an acclaimed shark hunter to make:

“The time is near when the Federal Government must step in and take action to save our ocean food fishes,” Coles wrote. As we will see later, in Coles’ eyes, “ocean food fishes” included many species of sharks.        

His warning, however ironic it might seem, was prescient when it came to sharks.

There are more than 500 species of sharks and they play a critical role in marine ecosystems in all the world’s ocean.

Yet according to ichthyologists at the Smithsonian, the world’s fisheries now harvest roughly 100 million sharks a year.  Fisheries for shark fins, which are used to make shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy, are especially large.

In North Carolina waters, the average annual weight of commercial shark landings has ranged from roughly 400,000 lbs. to more than million lbs. in recent years.

According to the NC Dept. of Environmental Quality, commercial shark fishermen typically use bottom longlines that are approximately 3-miles in length and carry 300 hooks.

Other shark fishermen use gill-nets that typically are about 7,500 feet in length.

Other shark fatalities are accidents. They are due to sharks being “bycatch,” meaning that they are caught unintentionally in gill-nets and other fishing gear meant for catching other kinds of fish.

Much about shark populations and their sustainability remains unknown. However, marine scientists estimate that at least one-quarter of all shark and ray species are under threat of extinction.

It is strange to contemplate: in the early 20th century, marine biologists were still focused on cataloging the most basic information about shark taxonomy, physiology, populations and behavior.

Now, only a century later, those who study sharks– as with so much of the world’s fauna– seem to spend most of their time like me, a historian: chronicling extinctions and warning of coming extinctions, as if Russell Coles’ lust for conquering nature had spread throughout the world.

-To be continued-

2 thoughts on “The Fate of Sharks

  1. Excellent story. Interesting about g-grandaddy’s hand injury. Did not know Mart could not swim. Unsual because of the history of many years they had working on the water…Thank you David!

    Liked by 1 person

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