Fifty years ago, when the Elkhorn Slough oyster fishery off Moss Landing, California, was facing collapse due to the commercial over harvesting of oysters, local
fishers created a contest to rid the waters of oyster-eating sharks and
rays. Once the sharks and rays were eradicated, they reasoned, the
vanishing shellfish populations would rebound and even higher levels of
oyster-harvesting would result.
The first shark and ray hunt took place in the spring of 1946 and the public responded enthusiastically to the invitation to help "liberate" the fishery. Hundreds of
harmless leopard sharks and bat rays were killed by citizens armed with
pitchforks, shotguns and dynamite. Although the shark and ray populations
were greatly reduced in the aftermath of the hunts, the oyster fishery
nonetheless collapsed shortly afterward.
Local anglers, however, were left with an indelible taste for killing. Each spring they
returned to the hunt, taking advantage of the sharks' and rays' seasonal
preoccupation with mating and birthing. Over the decades, two distinct
sporting groups emerged. One group of local anglers holds an annual
"rod-and-reel" event in which captured sharks are tagged and
released. The other group, the "Archers," are primarily
interested in killing sharks with hunting arrows and crossbows. The annual
Archer event has attracted more than 100 participants.
In 1991, the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, led by a Sean Van Sommeran,
suggested that the hunt be reconsidered in light of marine biologists' new
understanding of the vital roll that sharks play in the ocean ecosystem.
The Archers, however, did not agree to a review.
In 1993, PSRF disrupted the shark "derby," an action that forced the
Archers to negotiate. PSRF won a number of concessions, including
agreements that: no more than one shark could be taken per
archer (the state's legal limit is three), no more than 30 archers could
participate, all sharks killed were to be eaten and all future Archer's
derbies were to be monitored by PSRF. In addition, the event's timing was
pushed back, from early July to early August, to avoid the main portion of
the sharks' breeding cycle.
In 1994, however, the agreement was violated when some Archers made it a point to torture and brutalize their catches in front of PSRF observers.
This year, Van Sommeran organized a coalition of groups in support of permanently halting the event. A total of 50 representatives from Earth Island Institute,
Surfers Environmental Alliance, Earth First!, Sea Defense Alliance (SDA),
Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace and others, staged a protest at the Archers'
The event was delayed for hours with a "lockdown" of the boat launching area after three
protesters (Lynnelle Wing and Jennifer Kortright of Earth First! and
Jonathon Poaul of SDA) chained themselves to boats and boat trailers using
a Kryptonite lock. The rest of the action consisted of thwarting would-be
hunters and archers throughout the day with a small armada of kayaks,
skiffs and inflatables. Heckling by protesters was answered by archers who
spat coffee, swore and made threats of bodily harm. By day's end, only
four sharks had been killed. Earth First!'s Kortright was arrested and
charged with disturbing the peace, but the charge was later dropped.
In the aftermath of the 1995 derby, the Moss Landing Harbor District
has announced that it will not issue an event permit for 1996 and the derby's longtime sponsors -- Centro Valley Archers and the California
Bowman Hunter's Association -- have permanently withdrawn their support.
While individual archers will continue to spear sharks in the Elkhorn
slough, the end of the destructive event will help restore shark populations
and the ecological balance of the shark fishery.