Drones, Hooks and Blood: Secrets of the Shark Fisherman of Long Island


“We’re on!” Chris Stefanou yelled as his fishing rod bent sharply, the reel screaming in the wind. A crowd began to make its way toward his stretch of Tobay Beach, on Long Island, and within minutes, an unmistakable gray dorsal fin appeared just a few feet from shore.

“It’s a little one,” he said, running toward the water to haul the thrashing shark into the shallows.

It was a sandbar shark (also known as a brown shark), about five feet long. Mr. Stefanou quickly withdrew the hook from its jaw. A friend stretched out a measuring tape while Mr. Stefanou, a lean and athletic 24-year-old, straddled the shark and plunged a sharp metal tag into its back muscle, near the dorsal fin. More than a dozen onlookers snapped photos.

“Tag No. 13, male, 59 inches,” he announced before guiding the animal back into the waves and watching it swim off.

Like that, it was over. This was the 71st shark he had caught on Long Island this summer.

Catching sharks off the New York coast is nothing new. For generations, recreational surf fishermen, some of them local legends with names like Kayak Joe and Stingray Steve, have been hooking sandbar sharks or duskies or sand tigers — usually unintentionally, as bycatch to bluefish and striped bass. But with warming seas and abundant prey, sharks are passing closer and closer to the South Shore each summer. And for a younger crop of Long Island surf-casters looking for impressive photos to post on social media, the thrill of landing an apex predator is irresistible.

At times, it can be a brutal and bloody spectacle. The sharks often bleed from the hooks, and the fishermen sometimes bleed from the sharks’ coarse, armor-like skin. It usually takes more than one person to land a shark — at least one handling the rod and reel and another wrangling the animal. The prize is usually a very impressive selfie before the shark is released — or something darker. One picture shared in a private Facebook group this summer showed a sand tiger shark discarded on a Long Island beach with its head cut off.

“The shark angling community has a higher percentage of people that have this macho-man ‘I’m going to conquer giant beasts’ attitude,” said David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist and shark expert at Arizona State University.

One particular set of photos from July caused a stir: In them, a college student from suburban Manhasset, N.Y., posed for a series of pictures, flexing and reclining alongside a large shark he had caught and later released. In one, he pulled its nose up to show its teeth. “I was not a fan of what that guy did,” Mr. Stefanou said.

Mr. Stefanou draws a sharp distinction between fishermen like “that guy” and himself. Even though he promotes his shark exploits on social media under the handle LI Sharkman, on the beach he expresses concern for the endangered species he catches and has spent several years learning how to handle the animals safely, he said. He also participates in a volunteer shark-tagging program managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a citizen-science effort that has produced useful data on shark migrations across oceans and up and down the coast.

But the nature of land-based shark fishing, as opposed to fishing from a boat, brings a high probability that the shark will be harmed at some point between its initial hooking and ultimate release.

“It’s really, really bad for a lot of reasons,” said Greg Metzger, field coordinator for the shark research program at the South Fork Natural History Museum on Long Island. “One of the misconceptions is that they’re helping science, because they’re collecting data and tagging the sharks. The problem is the handling of the shark,” he said. “And that’s where the real issue is.”

Just because a shark swims away doesn’t mean it will survive for very long afterward, according to shark experts. Stress and exhaustion from the fight on the line — and abrasions from being dragged up the sand — can leave lasting damage.

In almost no case, Dr. Shiffman said, should there be time to pose for photographs. “Doing it right, leaving the shark in the water so that its gills are partially submerged, you don’t get as cool a picture,” he said. “But you’re less likely to kill the shark.”

Mr. Stefanou films everything — everything — to post on social media. He’s part fisherman, part showman, and his nearly 13,000 followers on Instagram are well acquainted with his shark-catching process: Hook an oily baitfish through the mouth and out through the top of the head. Fasten the line with the bait to a pressure-release rig dangling from a sturdy white drone.

“Goin’ out!” he yelled, and the drone raced away from sunbathers sprawled on Tobay Beach, far from the children boogie-boarding in the waves. Then, a half-mile out, when it was over deep enough water, he barked, “Kill it!” and his girlfriend, Savannah Comodo, locked the reel with a flick of the hand. The baited hook dropped into the sea with a distant splash amid the whitecaps and the gulls.

“I give it 10 minutes,” Mr. Stefanou said.

Vinny Cericola, who is 46 and has been catching sharks off Long Island for decades, prefers more traditional methods, like kayaking his baits out to deep water. He teaches marine science at a local high school, and he often takes former students along with him when he fishes and tags, always stressing that shark anglers should never put personal glory over an animal’s health.

“I don’t want to encourage other people to do this,” Mr. Cericola said. “Most people should not be fishing for sharks.”

One weekday evening in August, he invited me to join him. We paddled the bait out in yellow ocean kayaks — past the sandbar, where hundreds of little fish fins became visible, buzzing about in the dark evening swells.

“Bunker,” Mr. Cericola said.

Also known as Atlantic menhaden, bunker are a keystone species — among the most critical baitfish in the regional marine ecosystem, food for predatory fish and marine mammals alike.

Industrial fishing fleets decimated mid-Atlantic bunker populations in the 1990s and early 2000s, using spotter planes and fish vacuums and shredders to grind up entire schools for animal feed and fish-oil pills. Since successful fisheries management laws were enacted in recent years, it has become more common again to see thousands of bunker feeding in large, shadowy bulges near the beach. One of the main reasons sharks — along with dolphins, whales and seals — are becoming more abundant in New York waters is that the bunker have returned.

But shark populations around the world are still in rapid decline over all because of threats that include overfishing, slow reproduction rates and loss of reef habitat from climate change. Even sandbar, dusky and sand tiger sharks — which constitute a vast majority of large sharks caught on the Long Island shoreline — are all classified as either “vulnerable” or “endangered.”

Targeting them — even for catch-and-release — is prohibited by law. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation “regularly patrols ocean beaches for the illegal harvest and take of prohibited species,” with fines up to $250 for first-time violations, according to a statement shared with the Times.

Shark anglers would say they don’t “target” particular species and that they cannot always control which ones get hooked on their lines. But when it comes to sharks, most Long Island fishermen — including Mr. Stefanou and Mr. Cericola, neither of whom has ever been fined — have probably caught only these endangered species. For his part, Mr. Cericola would welcome more inspections, he said. “The damage to ecosystems could be reduced greatly if things were monitored and enforced more thoroughly.”

NOAA, together with state and local agencies, makes clear that volunteers with its tagging program — which receives data from anglers all along the East Coast, where legal practices vary from state to state — are not exempt from area regulations. The threats that unrestricted shark-fishing pose to the survival of prohibited species, experts say, are too great. “There is greater conservation benefit in protecting these prohibited species from illegal fishing than there is from allowing shore-based anglers to catch and potentially injure or kill the animal in an effort to apply a tag,” said Dawn McReynolds, assistant director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Marine Resources, in a statement.

But anglers are passionate about what they do. So the practice continues.

Three hundred yards from shore in his kayak, beneath a gray, unsettled sky, Mr. Cericola suddenly stopped. “I’m out of line,” he said, feeling the resistance of the rods back on the beach. “We’ll drop here.” He held the line between his teeth while he speared a foot-long bunker on a huge circle hook and lowered it into the sea. “I used to do this on a surfboard,” he said. “Line in my mouth the whole way out here. I was crazy.”

The sun began to set, and the sea was silent.

“My family’s from Brooklyn, and they’ve been fishing for generations,” Mr. Cericola said. He looked toward shore and waved his paddle in the air, signaling to his faraway companions that the bait was set and we would be making our way to land. “I’ve been doing this my whole life.”

Jordan Salama is a writer whose essays and stories have appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, National Geographic, and Smithsonian. His first book, “Every Day the River Changes,” a journey down the greatest river in Colombia, will be published in 2021.





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