“Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread.” That was Thomas Jefferson’s warning about the downside of centralized planning.

Updated, Jefferson might put it this way today: “Were we directed from Washington when to fish, and when to cut bait, we should soon want for more seafood and safer beaches.”

On July 6, a 7-foot bull shark ripped the arm off an 8-year-old boy while he was playing in knee-deep water near Pensacola, Florida. After grabbing the shark and wrestling it to shore, the boy’s uncle extracted the arm from the shark’s mouth. A few weeks later off Grand Bahama Island, a shark mangled the leg of a New York man so severely that surgeons were forced to amputate above the knee. That was followed by two fatal attacks within a few days of each other, one on a 10-year-old boy in Virginia and another on a man in North Carolina. Last August, a 69-year-old man was found floating near his dock on the Intracoastal Waterway in St. Petersburg Beach, dead from a huge bite through the torso.

All told, compared to 1993, the year the federal government launched its shark-protection program, shark attacks are up over 100 percent in U.S. coastal waters, up 325 percent in Florida. “As a result of the federal ban on shark fishing, 236,900 fewer sharks were caught in 1999 than in 1993,” reports Hans Nichols in Insight magazine, “leaving more in the water to gnaw off a limb from an occasional swimmer.”

Worldwide, a record-breaking 79 shark attacks took place last year, 51 of them in U.S. coastal waters, 34 of those in Florida, according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. In North Carolina and Alabama, shark attacks last year broke all previous records. The federal response, with swimmers, divers and surfers more endangered? Three new candidates were chosen for the endangered species list: gray nurse sharks, dusky sharks and night sharks.

The federal government’s operating assumption is that sharks are becoming extinct, particularly the large ones, and especially where we swim. In the waters off the eastern United States, for instance, the federal government’s Final Fishery Management Plan estimates that the total number of sandbar sharks, black-tips, great hammerheads, tiger sharks and other large coastal sharks has dropped from 8.9 million to 1.4 million from 1974 to 1998.

To counteract this alleged decline, the federal government began its first shark-management plan in 1993, setting catch quotas and banning finning, i.e., the practice of cutting off the fins and tossing the sharks back into the water to die, something that’s still standard procedure in much of the rest of the world.

At the state level, Florida chimed in with a strict, one-shark-per-person and two-sharks-per-boat maximum limit in state waters. Extending 3 miles into the ocean, this curb on catches creates a place of relative safety for sharks exactly where interaction with humans is most likely to occur.

Tightening the rules in 1997, the federal government cut the annual catch quota for large sharks in half, established the first fishing quota for small sharks, and banned entirely the catch of whale sharks, white sharks, basking sharks, sand tigers and bigeye tiger sharks.

Along with bull sharks, it’s these now-protected tiger sharks that are the most frequent attackers of humans in shallow waters. In deeper waters, it’s mako and hammerheads that are most likely to attack, along with the great whites of “Jaws” fame, who seem to mistake surfers for their favorite meal, seals.

“In the open sea, it’s the oceanic white-tip shark that’s most likely to prey on humans,” writes James Swan in North American Hunter magazine. “They hunt in packs and have been responsible for devouring many shipwreck survivors as they struggle to stay afloat.”

Bottom line, the combination of government-mandated shorter fishing seasons, a tenfold cut in shark-fishing permits, an increase in the types of sharks declared off-limits and lowered “trip limits” on catches has produced a 49 percent drop in the number of sharks caught in U.S. coastal waters, from 17.2 million pounds in 1989 to 8.5 million pounds in 1999, and a drop of 86 percent in Florida over the same period, from 7.4 million to just over 1 million pounds.

For the guys who catch sharks for a living, those drops translate into unemployment. Reports the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: “They say the government has grossly underestimated the number of sharks, using politically driven data designed to wipe out the shark-fishing industry. They say lower quotas will drive them out of business. They say the U.S. catches are a small fraction of the huge hauls taken by fishermen in countries that lack any shark restrictions at all. And they point to evidence that the shark population is rebounding: shredded shrimp nets, an increase in nuisance sharks that steal fish off lines, and more attacks on swimmers.”

For the rest of us, the problem is that sharks eat only meat and have evolved over millions of years into A-1 killing machines. In order of descending jeopardy, bathers are the most frequent human targets, followed by surfers, then divers, then shipwreck survivors. Says Merry Camhi at the Audubon Society, “They have a right to live in our oceans.” Fine, and we should have the right to eat them before they eat us.

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