Monster from the deep: Odd shark turns up in fisherman's set-gillnet

Posted: Friday, July 03, 2009

Commercial fishermen occasionally catch undesirable species by accident, but a Clam Gulch setnetter recently found a rare and toothy tenant tangled in the mesh of his fine filament.

Photo Courtesy Of Joel Doner
Photo Courtesy Of Joel Doner
From left to right, Sterling, Erin, Audra and Joel Doner, stand around the Pacific sleeper shark caught in a setnet off of Clam Gulch last week. In front of the shark are the contents of its stomach, which included several whole salmon, a halibut and crab.

"I got it about a week ago while fishing almost directly in front of Clum Gulch, about a half-mile out," said Joel Doner, who's family has commercially fished the site since 1962.

He had gone out to harvest what fish had accumulated after the flood tide, but as he drew near to the net, Doner said he could see the cork-line submerged, as is often that case when fishermen get a huge haul of sockeye.

"We started picking fish, when we saw this huge dark spot. At first I thought it was a log, but as we got closer I saw it was something else, like maybe a whale or something. Then I saw its tail, and I knew it was a shark," Doner said.

The size of the shark perplexed Donar, though. Unlike the 3- to 4-foot-long spiny dogfish which setnetters may catch dozens of each season, this shark was roughly 10 1/2 feet in length.

"It was huge. I've never caught a shark that big," he said.

Doner had heard about salmon sharks and guessed that must have been what he had landed. These are considered good eating, and often a shark this size would yield hundreds of pounds of porkchop-like steaks. Doner decided to harvest it, but the shark had other ideas.

"As soon as we started messing with it, it came to and started flopping all around," he said.

Rather than risk getting it in the small skiff where the shark could get chompy, Doner opted to tie a rope around it's tail and drag it to shore, but even this proved difficult.

"It started pulling the boat around," he said.

The shark finally fatigued and Doner got it to shore. There he and his family began the work of butchering the big beast, and they were surprised by all it had in its stomach.

"We gutted it on the beach and found four big, whole salmon, a halibut, crab and bunch of bones from digested fish," he said.

With the remaining shark meat, Doner headed to a local processor, but once there was surprised to learn that his catch was not what he had hoped.

"I learned is was a sleeper shark, which has toxins in its skin, so we had to chuck it. It was a real shame," he said.

More specifically, the Pacific sleeper shark stores high concentrations of a nitrogenous waste product, which helps it survive the crushing pressure and extreme cold of the deep sea depths where it typically occurs.

"We don't usually see many of them in upper Cook Inlet," said Jeff Fox, commercial fisheries area manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

Sleeper sharks can range from the Chukchi, East Siberian and Beaufort seas to the Bering Sea, down to Baja California, and off of Japan, including the Okhotsk Sea. But, they typically inhabit water depths of more than 1,000 feet.

There are records of a sleeper shark being beached in Kachemak Bay in 1958 after the tide went out, but more recent confirmed reports are few and far between, according to Fox.

"This is the first shark I've heard of anyone landing, although I've heard of a few people rolling them out of their nets," he said.

That said, Fox added that there seems to be a rise in the frequency of all sharks species encountered in the inlet as of late.

"Drifters are starting to see more of them. They've been exponentially increasing in recent years, but I don't know why," he said.

Doner said the sleeper shark may be the largest oddity he has encountered while commercial fishing, but it's not the most unusual fish he's ever caught. Two years ago he pulled strange-looking salmon out of his setnet that was later identified by fish biologists as an Atlanic salmon, believed to have escaped from a fish farm in British Columbia or Washington.

"I can't catch sockeye, but I can catch every thing else," Doner joked.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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