Sharks have never been real popular with Louisiana fishermen — even in the days before shark harvest was regulated.
Most people simply got them off their hook as quickly as possible and went back to fishing for more-glamorous species.
Just when sports fishermen were catching on to what fine table fare sharks are, the environmental community began yammering that sharks were going extinct (apparently none of them fished off of Louisiana) and that without these wonderful apex predators, the whole ocean ecosystem would collapse.
The feds (the same folks who manage red snappers) responded vigorously.
They put 20 species on the no-take list. They put a 78-inch fork length minimum on hammerheads (except the bonnethead) and a 54-inch fork length minimum on what was left.
The creel limit on the species above was one per boat, not one per person — one per boat.
Only two shark species were exempted from these draconian regulations: the bonnethead and the Atlantic sharpnose, which carried no minimum size and a one-per-person limit rather than one per boat.
Sharks always have been difficult for recreational fishermen to identify, and with the complexity and stringency of the regulations, most anglers simply threw up their hands in surrender and tossed all sharks overboard.
Lost in all this was the fact that bonnethead and the Atlantic sharpnose sharks are very, very easy to identify.
And the Atlantic sharpnose, the species we will discuss here, is wonderful table fare — better than any snapper, hands down — if properly handled.
A dead identification giveaway is that Atlantic sharpnose sharks carry several very noticeable thumbprint-like white spots on each side of their body. No other shark has these spots.
Atlantic sharpnoses are members of the requiem shark family, a rather creepy name for a family of sharks that includes a number of species known to attack humans, including the bull, oceanic whitetip, tiger and blacktip sharks.
The latter species produces a lot of bites to surfers and swimmers but are more nips than life-threatening bites.
The other three species are dangerous.
Fortunately, our good-tasting hero doesn’t fit in this category.
He’s a little guy: A 44-incher is a giant.
The scientific name of the Atlantic sharpnose is Rhizoprionodon terraenovae. The genus name is derived from Greek, where “rhiza” means root, “prion” means saw, and “odous” means teeth.
I don’t know what “root-saw-tooth” is supposed to mean, but that’s the interpretation.
The species name makes a lot more sense, as terraenovae means “new land” in Latin. The species is confined to the new world: the Atlantic coast from New Brunswick, Canada south through the Gulf of Mexico to the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula.
Within its range, it is a nearshore shark that is often found in waters less than 35 feet deep, although it will move deeper.
Its choice of habitat means that both sport fishermen and commercial shrimpers catch a lot of them. Their bycatch in shrimp trawls has been strongly reduced by the mandatory use of fish excluder devices.
During the summer, the Atlantic sharpnose might venture into coastal bays, but unlike bull sharks they will not enter fresh water.
In the winter, the species moves into deeper offshore waters.
Atlantic sharpnose sharks bear living young in litters of one to seven. Males use extensions of their anal fins called claspers to transfer sperm to females. After a gestation of 10 to 11 months, females give birth to 11- to 15-inch pups.
Birthing takes place in shallow nearshore waters from mid-May to mid-June.
Both males and females mature between 2 and 3 years old and between 31 and 35 inches in length. Males mature slightly younger and smaller than females.
Atlantic sharpnose sharks eat a varied diet that includes fish, shrimp, worms and crabs. All sorts of fish are consumed: menhaden, eels, silversides (aka glass minnows), jacks, toadfish and filefish.
Some are bottom fish. Others live near the surface.
The range of the Atlantic sharpnose overlaps that of brown and white shrimp offshore, and several studies have indicated that the sharks are a very strong shrimp predators. Perhaps that partially accounts for the sweet taste of its flesh.
Like all sharks, the Atlantic sharpnose has no bones, being a cartilaginous fish. That means you will never get a bone in your throat eating shark.
The biggest problem in producing high-quality shark flesh is that sharks retain urea in their flesh.
Urea is what makes a wet baby diaper smell the way it does. The best way to prevent the smell is to gut the fish at sea and bury it in ice rather than just toss it on top of the ice.
Even if the shark is not handled perfectly and the flesh develops a mild odor, it is easy to remove by soaking the flesh in ice water for an hour after the fish is cleaned.
Urea is very water soluble and will immediately leach out of the flesh, leaving a lean, white product suitable for all forms of fish cookery.
Once you have eaten Atlantic sharpnose sharks, you will not only want to bring your next catch home, you will claim your fishing partners’ sharks, as well.