DRAWING ATTENTION TO THE PLIGHT OF HIGHLY VULNERABLE SHARK AND RAY SPECIES WORLDWIDE

 

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 2011 PANAMA SCOOPHEAD SHARK EXPEDITION

The Scoophead Shark Sphyrna media is a data deficient species of hammerhead restricted to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America and northern South America.

In March 2011 PIP Photographer Andy Murch scoured the Pacific slope of Panama in search of an opportunity to photograph this species in the wild. With the help of Dr Ross Robertson of the Smithsonian Field Station in Panama City, Andy was able to track down fishermen in the Rio Chepo that encounter this species. The following account illustrates the difficulties of undertaking expeditions to photograph species in remote areas and the often heart wrenching work of attempting conservation photography while working with commercial fishermen.

 

 

ANDY'S JOURNAL NOTES FROM THE ROAD

Most serious shark divers can point out the difference between a scalloped hammerhead and a great hammerhead. Some even know what a smooth hammerhead looks like although few have seen one in the wild.
Bonnetheads are also pretty well known and easy to identify with their half circle hammers, but thatís where most of us start running out of names.
There are actually five more hammerhead species known to taxonomists: the cryptic hammerhead (which looks exactly like a scalloped), the winghead shark (which has a distinctively wide sweptback hammer) and the smalleye hammerhead, the mallethead shark and the scoophead shark which are all smallish hammerheads (3-5ft max length) that have narrow hammers with varying amounts of scalloping.
To make identification of those three even trickier, they all live in turbid inshore areas in Central America (either in the Atlantic, Pacific or both).

Realizing the need to shoot these little hammers in the wild, I started reading scientific papers and fisheries reports to see if I could figure out where exactly some of them might be hiding.
On my first attempt, I spent two weeks diving and floating around on shark fishing pangas off the coast of El Salvador. Thatís a story in its own right that took me deep into the Central American shark finning world but I didnít find my shark during that adventure.
On the second expedition I flew into Panama City, Panama. It was a shot in the dark but it made sense that a shark that lives on both sides of Central America must be based somewhere around the Panama Canal.
I spoke at length with Ross Robertson from the Smithsonian Field Station in Panama City and he told me that gillnetters (fishing for bottom dwelling fish species) sometimes pull up scoopheads and malletheads in Panama Bay.
I hired a 4x4 rental car and found a shop that could hook me up with tanks and weights. Then, map in hand, I started combing the shallow bays along the Pacific coast to see what might show up.
The visibility within swimming distance from shore was horrendous. By literally crawling along the bottom, I was able to make my way down to about 50ft but the thick plankton, river run off and powerful surge from the giant Pacific rollers made searching virtually impossible.
In one sheltered spot, I did manage to shoot a bunch of Rogerís round stingrays (Urotrygon rogersi) that I am pretty sure no one has photographed in the wild before. That was encouraging but it was obvious that I wasnít going to stumble across a shark and even if I did, it was unlikely that Iíd be able to focus on it with all that sand and mud blowing around.
I headed even further south to a town called Chepo in Darien Province. Scruffy Chepo is the last bastion of civilization before Central America deteriorates into the oppressive heat of the Darien Jungle.
Between snakes, malaria and drug runners, itís an interesting place for a vacation. Go too far into the Darien and you run the risk of never coming back.
Early on a muggy jungle morning, I drove to a rundown port on the banks of the Rio Chepo and started talking to fishermen about sharks.
Most fishermen work in the river itself but a few who make the long trek to the Pacific Ocean, told me that they sometimes pull up rare hammers. The challenge would be for me to liberate one before it either drowned in their nets or they killed it.
I found a boat driver that was willing to take me to the fishing grounds and we left the muddy port behind us.
The trip downriver was a journey into another world. As the noise of humanity receded in our wake, the jungle came alive with the sound of birds, monkeys and other tantalizingly invisible wildlife. Statuesque egrets stared patently into the shallows and caymans slipped under the water at our approach.
As the sun climbed higher, the thick jungle foliage slowly grew sparser until it abruptly terminated at a broad, pelican-covered sandbar.
Beyond the bar was a small island with a tiny village where the gillnetters spend most of their adult lives.
On the horizon, I could make out the specks of brightly colored fishing pangas.
Over the next few hours we motored from boat to boat asking each one if they had caught sharks. A few had small blacktips crammed into their oily bilges but none had seen any hammerheads.
As the day wore on, I began to realize what a long shot it would be to actually stumble across a live hammerhead of the variety that I sought but just before the afternoon winds forced us back into the river, we came across a gillnetting boat that had a tiny brown body limply thrashing in its nets.
I immediately asked in my best broken-Spanish if I could buy and release the little shark with its disproportionately large hammer.
The shark was a scoophead (Sphyrna media). It was of little value to the fishermen so the negotiation went swiftly but by the time that I got the shark back in the water there was little that could be done.
I tried cradling it gently and swimming as fast as I could with its mouth angled into the current in the hope that it would rally with the extra oxygen, but the shark continued to limp slowly along. Occasionally it would turn away from the giant eyeball of my dome port and I hoped that it was preparing to flee from me into the depths but no matter how much I willed it to live, the tiny scoophead eventually ran out of energy and gave up the fight.
It was a very sad moment. It was also chilling in a way because I thought of this one little shark as a representative of its species as a whole.
Faced with increasing fishing pressure, scoopheads (and many other endemic species with restricted ranges) are in a very precarious position.
So far, the scoophead seems to be coping but the smalleye hammerhead is listed by the IUCN as vulnerable and the low productivity of the mallethead shark (listed as Ďnear threatenedí) implies that any upswing in fishing efforts could quickly herald its demise.
Judging by the few fish that each panga had amassed, I was left with the impression that Pacific Panama (like every other coastline) needs a break. How that can be arranged when there are hungry mouths to feed is the billion dollar question. I donít have any answers but as we retraced our steps up the Rio Chepo towards Ďcivilizationí I felt that I might be heading in the wrong direction.