Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/January 1877/About Sharks

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SHARKS are usually spoken of as the most rapacious and abhorrent of sea-animals. That they are rapacious is undeniable, but why they are so is not generally considered. We will go a little into the matter. The shark, a fish of the family Squalidæ, when quite in his infant state, and only a few inches in length, exhibits a pugnacity almost without parallel for his age. He will attack fish two or three times larger than himself; or, if caught, and placed for observation on the deck of a vessel, he resents handling, and, with unerring precision, strikes a finger placed on almost any part of his body.

Two things contribute to the shark's determinate fierceness. In the first place, we may refer to his teeth, for of these engines of destruction Nature has been to him particularly bountiful; and this species of bounty he has a peculiar pleasure in exercising. If he could speak, he would probably tell us that, besides being troubled with his teeth, which he could not help keeping in use, he had been gifted with enormous abdominal viscera, and that, more particularly, a third of his body is occupied by spleen and liver. The bile and other digestive juices which are secreted from such an immense apparatus, and poured continually into the stomach, tend to stimulate appetite prodigiously—and what hungry animal with good teeth was ever tender-hearted? In truth, a shark's appetite can never be appeased; for, in addition to this bilious diathesis, he is not a careful masticator, but, hastily bolting his food, produces thereby not only the moroseness of indigestion, but a whole host of parasites, which goad as well as irritate the intestines to that degree that the poor squalus is sometimes quite beside himself for the torment, and rushes, like a blind Polyphemus, through the waves in search of anything to cram down his maw that may allay such urgent distress. He does not seek to be cruel, but is cruelly famished. "It is not I," expostulates the man in the crowd, "that is pushing; it is others behind me." The poor wretch must satisfy, not only his own ravenous appetite, but the constant demand of these internal parasites, either with dead or living food; and therefore it is that, sped as from a catapult, he pounces on a quarry, and sometimes gorges himself beyond what he is able to contain.

Having said thus much of the rapacious habits of the Squalidæ, we would have it remembered that every man's hand is against them, and that no tortures are considered too severe to inflict upon them when caught. If they are relentless to man and every living thing around them, their insatiable appetite renders them equally destructive to their own species, and we of the white population of this globe ought to recollect, with some show of gratitude, that they always prefer an African to a European; for, although they are fond of men of any color, a negro is to them as the choicest venison. Commerson tells us that one of the atrocious amusements practised on board slave-ships was to suspend a dead negro from the bowsprit, in order to watch the efforts of the sharks to reach him, and this they would sometimes effect at a height of more than twenty feet above the level of the sea. Wonderful are the tales that sailors tell of the various things that have been found in a shark's stomach, and it was thought that any substance that would enter its mouth was at all times acceptable. The following, which details a cruel trick, as described in the Glasgow Observer, dispels this illusion: "Looking over the bulwarks of the schooner," writes a correspondent to this journal, "I saw one of these watchful monsters winding lazily backward and forward like a long meteor; sometimes rising till his nose disturbed the surface, and a gushing sound like a deep breath rose through the breakers; at others, resting motionless on the water, as if listening to our voices, and thirsting for our blood. As we were watching the motions of this monster, Bruce (a little lively negro, and my cook) suggested the possibility of destroying it. This was briefly to heat a fire-brick in the stove, wrap it up hastily in some old greasy cloths, as a sort of disguise, and then to heave it overboard. This was the work of a few minutes; and the effect was triumphant. The monster followed after the hissing prey. We saw it dart at the brick like a flash of lightning, and gorge it instanter. The shark rose to the surface almost immediately, and his uneasy motions soon betrayed the success of the manoeuvre. His agonies became terrible; the waters appeared as if disturbed by a violent squall, and the spray was driven over the taffrail where we stood, while the gleaming body of the fish repeatedly burst through the dark waves, as if writhing with fierce and terrible convulsions. Sometimes we thought we heard a shrill, bellowing cry, as if indicative of anguish and rage, rising through the gurgling waters. His fury, however, was soon exhausted; in a short time the sounds broke away into distance, and the agitation of the sea subsided. The shark had given himself up to the tides, as unable to struggle against the approach of death, and they were carrying his body unresistingly to the beach."

Crouch, in his "Fishes of the British Islands," would indirectly claim some apology for the habits of the shark tribe; in reference to which he asks why the lion and the eagle should occupy the elevated places they do in popular estimation, as the king of beasts and monarch of the air. They live by the exercise of powers similar to those of the sharks, and if insatiable appetites are to take precedence, sharks ought to stand in the foremost rank.

The appearance of sharks occasionally upon our coast naturally creates a certain panic among bathers; and we may trace the breakage of the nets of our fishermen to their presence, among other causes. The six-gilled shark, or gray shark, is sometimes eleven or twelve feet in length, and is very destructive among the pilchards on the Cornish coast. The white shark is a formidable fellow; but although his class occasionally send over to our isles deputations of one or two, we have, fortunately, not had to record of late years such a visitation as that of 1785, when hundreds appeared in the British Channel. This individual is, perhaps, the most formidable of all the inhabitants of the ocean. Ruysch says that the whole body of a man, and even a man in armor, has been found in the body of a white shark. Captain King, in his "Survey of Australia," says he caught one which could have swallowed a man with the greatest ease. Blumenbach says a whole horse has been found in it; and Captain Basil Hall reports the taking of one, in which, besides other things, he found the whole skin of a buffalo, which a short time before had been thrown overboard from his ship. The blue shark is a horrible nuisance to the fishermen, but, fortunately, it is with us only in summer, when it makes itself known by hunting after the fish entangled in the nets, which it does by seizing both fish and net with its keen and serrated teeth, and swallowing fish and mesh together. As it is not always pleasant to have sharks following a ship, it cannot be too well known that a bucket or two of bilge-water has been known to drive them off.

The shark tribe are remarkably retentive of life, and instances are related which would be almost beyond belief, if not vouched for by numbers of witnesses. For instance, an individual was caught with a line; its liver was cut out, and the bowels left hanging from the body, in which state the sailors, as an object of abhorrence, threw it into the sea. But it continued near the boat; and not long afterward it pursued and attempted to devour a mackerel that had escaped from the net. In another instance, a shark was thrown overboard after the head had been severed from the body; after which, for a couple of hours, the body continued to use the efforts of swimming in various directions—to employ the conjecture of a boy among the crew—as if it were looking for its head. Next, we have the thrasher, which has obtained the name of fox-shark, because of the shape of its tail. The title of thrasher, however, is most appropriate, from its habit of lashing the sea with its tail, by which it has been known to put to flight a herd of sportive dolphins, and even to fill the whale with terror. The porbeagle is another of the shark tribe, and is a common visitor on the western coasts in summer. Then follows that too plentiful and rapacious fish, the toper, known likewise as the white-hound, penny-dog, or miller-dog. However, as it swims deep, it does not do so much injury to the fishermen's nets as some of its congeners. Then we have the smooth-hound, or ray-mouthed dog, or skate-toothed shark, which are presumed to come from considerable distances, from the kind of hooks sometimes found in them, which resemble those used on the coast of Spain. They feed upon crustaceous animals, but will take a bait. The picked-dog, spur-dog, or bone-dog, but commonly known as the dog-fish, is the smallest, but unquestionably the most numerous of the shark tribe. It frequents our coasts all the year round, and even in the severest weather. Then there are the spinous shark, and Greenland shark, which will not be driven away from feeding upon the blubber of a stranded, half-immersed whale, although pierced with spears, but come again to the oleaginous banquet while a spark of life exists. The basking-shark also, occasionally, casts up on our coasts. It is of a large size, is capable of breaking a six-inch hawser, and is only taken with considerable difficulty. Then we have the rashleigh shark, the broad-headed gazer, and the hammer-head or balance-fish, which may be said to complete the list of these occasional unwelcome visitors to our shores.

And now that we have said so much that is prejudicial to the Squalidæ or shark community, let us see what we have as a set-off in their favor. As a food for man, the toper is found exposed for sale in the markets at Rome; and in Paris, that city of gastronomy, the small kinds of shark, when divested of their tantalizing titles, are to be detected as entries in the menu of many of the most distinguished families. For some years, the dog-fish has afforded lucrative employment during the whole of the summer to the fishermen from the Naze to the Cape. It is, however, mostly smoked, and in this way is considered rather a delicacy. It is also dried and split as stock-fish for consumption in the country, as well as for export to Sweden, where it is greatly appreciated. It is likewise elsewhere a common article of food, amid the choice of a variety of other fish, especially in the west of England, and, indeed, is valued by some who are far above the necessity of classing it with their ordinary articles of subsistence. It is used both fresh and salted, but, when eaten fresh, it is skinned before being cooked. Lacipede, who speaks slightingly of its flesh, informs us that, in the north of Europe, the eggs, which are about the size of a small orange, and consist solely of a pale-colored yolk, are in high esteem. If prejudice could be got over, there is no doubt they would form an agreeable as well as a nourishing article of food, as a substitute for other eggs in our domestic economy.

The shark-fishery is carried on in many parts of the Indian Ocean, and on the eastern coast of Africa, and recently it has been pursued on the coast of Norway. About Kurrachee, in India, as many as 40,000 sharks are taken in the year. The back-fins are much esteemed as a food delicacy in China, from 7,000 to 10,000 of these being shipped to that empire annually from Bombay. In Norway and Iceland the inhabitants make indiscriminate use of every species captured, hanging up the carcasses for a whole year, like hams, that the flesh may become mellow. The liver, however, appears to be strictly prohibited everywhere, as a dangerous article of food.

Mr. N. Brabazon, in his "Fisheries of Ireland," in allusion to the large shoals of sharks which pass annually along the west coast, on their way from the southern to the northern seas, speaks particularly of the basking shark: "These fish are worth from £35 to £50 each; and when so many as five hundred have been killed in one season, this class of fishing should be well attended to for the short season it lasts, if the weather is favorable to it, especially as it is at a time when other fish are out of season. The fishermen have a superstition that the fish will leave the coast if the bodies of those caught were brought to the shore." Mr. P. L. Simmons, in his "Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances," gives almost incredible statistics of the vast amount of fish-refuse which is either left to rot on the coasts and putrefy the air, or thrown back into the sea unutilized, both on our own and on foreign shores; and he significantly points to its value as a manure not far inferior to guano, of which this country alone requires 200,000 tons a year, and pays upward of £22,000,000. Would it not, therefore, be wise for enterprise and capital to begin to turn more attention to the manufacture of fish-guano, of which the debris of the North American fisheries, and those of the North Sea, would furnish ample material?—Chambers Journal.