Richard Balough of Soldotna displays the 8-foot salmon shark he caught while fishing for halibut in Cook Inlet last week.
Photo by Peggy Cloninger
Had Richard Balogh been fishing in Prince William Sound rather than Cook Inlet, he might have been prepared for the fish that emerged from the ocean’s icy waves onto the halibut charter boat he was fishing on last week.
Based on the way the fish fought, Balogh said he did not expect to find a halibut on the other end of his line. But he would not have guessed he was about to become one of only a handful of fishermen to reel in a Cook Inlet salmon shark each year, he said.
“It took off side to side and then it went deep,” said the Soldotna resident. “We didn’t think it was going to be a halibut, we thought it was going to be a skate. Who’d have thought I’d catch something like this?”
Balogh reeled for 40 minutes as the fish struggled to stay 215 feet beneath the inlet’s dark waters, where it swallowed Balogh’s halibut hook and bait.
“You’d reel in three feet and he’d reel out two,” he said.
When Balogh finally managed to reel in his catch, it was so big it had to be partially gutted before it could be hauled on board. Even after it had been partially gutted, the charter Seldovia Fishing Adventures had to call a second charter boat to help, he said.
“It took five of us using gaffs and a rope to get it in the boat,” he said.
Gutted, the fish weighed 270 pounds and measured 8 feet long.
Although that may sound extraordinary, an 8-foot shark weighing more than 270 pounds is actually standard for a salmon shark in Alaska.
“That’s pretty much right out of the mold,” said Ken Goldman, a research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer.
An average adult salmon shark may weigh anywhere from 291 to 390 pounds, said Scott Meyer, a fisheries biologist with Fish and Game in Homer. Samples caught in Cook Inlet have typically measured anywhere from 6 to 8 feet in length, he said.
That Balogh caught a salmon shark in Cook Inlet at all, is a little less usual.
“They’re certainly around, but they don’t form large aggregations,” Meyer said.
Only two to five salmon sharks are caught in the inlet each year and are more commonly caught in Prince William sound, where they are more likely to aggregate in school-like congregations.
“The vast majority of salmon sharks are caught in the sound by (salmon shark) sportfish charters,” Goldman said.
On the rare occasion that a halibut fisherman in Cook Inlet does hook a salmon shark, chances are the shark’s rows of sharp teeth will saw through the leader before the fisherman gets it to the boat.
“They’ve got teeth and they know how to use them,” Meyer said.
Balogh credited the hook’s location in the shark’s mouth with enabling him to reel in his shark.
The hook had firmly lodged in the corner of the shark’s mouth, which helped his leader avoid the shark’s teeth as he reeled it in.
Why salmon shark aggregate in Prince William Sound but not in Cook Inlet remains a mystery.
A second mystery that has researchers scratching their heads over salmon sharks throughout the north Pacific is their unusual sex distribution.
Salmon sharks in the north eastern Pacific are 80 to 90 percent female, Meyer said.
Salmon sharks in the north western Pacific, on the other hand, are almost entirely male, and some researchers theorize that the two populations may meet somewhere between Japan and Alaska at some point in the year and mate, though it has never been documented, he said.
In recent years, some Alaska fishermen and media stories have claimed that salmon shark populations are growing.
But Meyer and Goldman said while salmon shark numbers appear to be strong, there is no research data to indicate their populations are growing.
“I don’t think there’s been an increase in salmon shark numbers, I think there’s been an increase in the attention given to them,” Meyer said.
But because there are no good estimates as to how many salmon sharks lived in Alaska’s waters in the past or do now, claims that their populations are growing are drawn from anecdotal evidence, he said.
“I don’t think there’s a way to know if there are more salmon sharks than they’re used to be in Cook Inlet,” he said. “(But) it’s been splashed in the media for years. I don’t know how they can make those statements ... . How can you know you are making more money if you don’t know how much money you used to make?”
Salmon shark numbers may appear to be growing because aggregations of sharks may be migrating into areas where they have not in the past, Goldman said.
“That can lead to the false impression that the population is growing,” he said.
Salmon shark migration patterns could be changing due to a number of different factors, such as changes in food availability.
Salmon may be a primary food source for the sharks at certain periods of the year, they feed on 32-34 different species of fish, including salmon.
While Salmon sharks find many species of fish to their liking, many people also find the salmon shark itself delectable.
The salmon shark is a member of the same family of sharks as the mako shark, a family known for its delectability, Goldman said.
“I find them to be quite tasty,” he said.
Balogh said he has yet to eat any of the shark steaks he brought home, but said a friend to whom he gave one said it tasted like swordfish.
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