Toothy giant may get break in S.C. (copy)

Tiger shark

A great hammerhead shark can grow to 20 feet long and swim from Maine to Florida in a year. A tiger shark can grow nearly as big. The bull shark is maybe the most watched-out-for predator in South Carolina waters.

There are a lot of them out there, even though those species are in serious decline from overfishing in the rest of the world. The Charleston Bump might be a bigger factor than realized, a recent study has confirmed.

The Bump is a huge rock outcropping 80 miles out from its namesake, rising nearly 1,000 feet from the bottom in the 2,000-foot-deep Gulf Stream. It is a rich fish nursery and a generations-old, deep sea fishing mecca. It is targeted by commercial boats internationally for species like tuna and swordfish.

The Bump among other spots is closed to longline fishing seasonally by federal managers — a move designed to assure the survival of species such as young swordfish, bill fish and turtles. In longline fishing, lines are dragged behind the boat that can hold hundreds of baited hooks.

The protected Bump "is probably contributing to the stabilization of shark species in the region," said Neil Hammerschlag, the director of shark research and conservation at the University of Miami, who took part in the study.

Sharks aren't everybody's favorite fish. But the presence of apex predators like sharks has been shown to be critical to keeping ecosystems healthy for other fish. Meanwhile, sharks themselves have become an invaluable resource for a growing variety of medicines.

Highly migratory animals like the sharks evidently move from fish nursery to nursery season to season, feeding where and when the catch is good. Unfortunately for them, so do longline boats. The sharks can be lost as the catch or by-catch.

Findings from the Bump indicate that seasonal restrictions at similar rich habitats in the Gulf of Mexico could help the species recover there too, according to the study authors. The hammerheads alone are considered to have declined by as much as 80 percent in the past quarter century, according to ecologists.

The study also gives researchers a better understanding of how important varying seasonal closings at habitats can help other species as well, said Hannah Calich, the lead author.

Seasonal restrictions aren't popular among anglers, who like to fish year-round. Neither are the relatively abundant sharks.

"What we hear a good bit at meetings and public hearings from commercial and some recreational fishermen is that some species of sharks seem to be doing quite well and are becoming a problem for them — damaging gear and taking their catch," said Mel Bell, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director.

Bell sits on the federal council that recommends fishery management moves to NOAA. Sharks are not among the species managed.

Tens of thousands of newborn sharks swim in coastal South Carolina waters

The study joins ongoing federal research indicating a number of shark species give birth virtually everywhere along the South Carolina coast there is a fish-rich river delta. The estuaries are the center of near-shore breeding for sharks for the entire Southeast and Gulf of Mexico, according to DNR biologist Bryan Frazier.

Sharks are not the swimmer-attacking beasts the movies would have you believe. A few people are nipped or worse each year in the Carolinas, but nearly all strikes are unintentional, with the animal mistaking humans for prey fish in the roiling surf.

South Carolina hasn’t had a fatal attack since the 1850s. Statistically, you're more likely to be killed by a popping champagne cork than a shark.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.