The Underrated Blacktip Shark

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My first encounter with a blacktip shark came while soaking a big hunk of cut mullet behind a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

I will never forget seeing the streamlined fish burst from the water like a wayward rocket and achieve an almost marlin-like tail walk on the sandy green surface. To my fishing hosts, this was just another annoying shark, but to this young angler it was an encounter with destiny.

Since then I have battled and caught many blacktips. Although my shark studies have focused more on bulls, great whites, tigers and even the diminutive Atlantic sharpnose, blacktips always seem to be in the mix somewhere. These sharks are popular and important for sport anglers on the Gulf Coast, yet they are greatly misunderstood.

For starters, all “blacktips” are not necessarily blacktips. Young bull sharks are sometimes mistaken for blacktips by novice anglers due to the black markings on their fins but on closer inspection, the rounded nose and bulldog like appearance of the bull is a striking contrast to the sleek blacktip. The spinner shark however is much more difficult to differentiate from blacktips. In fact, many veteran anglers and biologists have a hard time telling the difference at first glance.

They are very similar in body shape and size and both are quite acrobatic when hooked although the spinner twists like a tornado as the name implies, and blacktips do more straight jumps. The best way to tell them apart is the anal fin on the spinner is black whereas the blacktip’s is not. In reality, the spinner in many cases has more black on its tips than the blacktip.

If you were to ask anglers whether these species were dangerous, most would answer with a resounding “No!” since they are not in the lexicon of deadly sharks. In fact, the Discovery Channel produced a highly rated program about the top 10 most dangerous sharks and neither made the list. Both the oceanic whitetip and shortfin mako did. However, those species rank far below both the blacktip and spinner in terms of unprovoked attacks on humans according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

ISAF data show blacktips are responsible for 28 unprovoked attacks and 13 provoked attacks (think feeding, harassing, etc.). Spinners have been responsible for 15 unprovoked attacks, and one on the provoked side. For comparison, the oceanic whitetip committed five unprovoked and three provoked attacks. The shortfin mako dished out eight unprovoked attacks and 15 provoked.

In the network’s defense, its list featured numerous factors, including fatalities, size and likelihood to encounter humans. This would obviously put species like the great white above many other known attackers, but in terms of raw attack data, blacktips and spinners deserve our respect.

They are also a species humans are likely to encounter in shallow water along beaches. This is where anglers tote stringers of speckled trout and other sport fishes, not to mention the scores of swimmers in this area.

It is also possible blacktips and spinners are responsible for more attacks than ISAF can accurately list.

“Positive identification of attacking sharks is very difficult, since victims rarely make adequate observations of the attacker during the ‘heat’ of the interaction,” according to George H. Burgess of ISAF. “Tooth remains are seldom found in wounds, and diagnostic characters for many requiem sharks (including blacktips and spinners) are difficult to discern even by trained professionals.

Blacktips can grow to fairly large sizes and and are extremely exciting sportfish with impressive acrobatic ability.

Blacktips can grow to fairly large sizes and and are extremely exciting sportfish with impressive acrobatic ability.

“Realistically, almost any shark in the right size range, roughly six feet (1.8 meters) or greater, is a potential threat to humans because, even if a bite is not intended as a directed feeding attempt on a human, the power of the jaw and tooth morphology can lead to injury.”

This does not mean you should start worrying about becoming a blacktip’s next meal. After all, shark attacks are rare, no matter the species. However, you might want to give them a bit more respect because the statistics don’t lie.

The blacktip shark deserves it.

I spent two summers tagging blacktips with the Mote Marine Laboratory under the guidance of biologist John Tyminski. Unfortunately, I had to quit my tagging efforts because of finances and an adequate boat at the time, but I learned a lot about the species and their conservation problems.

The Mote officials were interested in establishing whether the Upper Texas Coast was a nursery area for blacktips and whether they headed south toward Mexican waters in the winter.

There is a totally unregulated commercial fishery for sharks (and just about everything else in the Gulf) down there. Biologists were looking for a way to establish where the sharks were produced and where they met their demise.

My personal favorite blacktip encounter happened in the Chandelier Islands back in the summer of 1999. I was fishing off the shore of Breton Island with Capt. George Knighten when a school of mullet in front of us went from being nervous to completely freaking out. They leapt in every direction away from something that looked to be about two and half feet long and stirring in the water below.

Knighten, who was wading ahead of me, chunked his Mirrolure Top Dog toward the fracas, fully expecting to catch a big sow speck. What he got instead was a massive blowup from a juvenile blacktip. At that time, Top Dogs were hot commodities so he wanted to reel the fish in and retrieve his plug. However, the shark had other ideas, snapping the line easily with its sharp sandpaper skin and quickly darting back into the small channel along the island.

Blacktip sharks frequent shallow waters and are likely to be encountered by humans.

Blacktip sharks frequent shallow waters and are likely to be encountered by humans.

Two days later, just before we were headed back to the mainland, Knighten and I found ourselves wading the exact same stretch of shoreline, this time catching a nice bunch of specks. As we plugged away, Knighten hollered “shark” as a blacktip tugged at his stringer, making an easy meal of the trout.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Knighten said.“This is the same blacktip I lost here two days ago.”

“How do you know,” I asked.

“My plug is still in its mouth!”

Whether that shows the species is territorial or not is debatable, but it definitely illustrates a dogged determination that is seeing this valuable species hold its own while others dwindle away.


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