UF Shark Expert
George Burgess
Preaches A
Message of Tolerance

by Joseph Kays

George Burgess conducted more than 900 media interviews last year during what Time magazine called the "Summer of the Shark," but to him none was more important than the one he did on the Today show hours before going off to lobby on Capitol Hill.

As director of the International Shark Attack File based at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Burgess was in great demand following a horrific shark attack on 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast off a Florida Panhandle beach and subsequent attacks throughout the summer.

  Following the Arbogast attack, so many reporters from The New York Times, CNN and other media outlets sought Burgess’ comments while he was attending a conference at Penn State University that the university’s public information office assigned him a staff member to coordinate all the interviews.

And in each of those interviews, Burgess repeated the same message: Humans are wiping out sharks, not the other way around.

He dispelled the myth that shark attacks are on the rise, noting that the number of attacks has gone up only slightly each year, despite the fact that the number of recreational beach swimmers has gone up dramatically.

And he reminded readers and viewers that humans are in sharks’ environment, not the other way around.

Fortunately for Burgess, and for the sharks, all of these messages were fresh in the minds of the members of Congress he visited after appearing on the Today show on July 10.

Burgess was in Washington to push for long-term funding of new shark research initiatives to complement the Commercial Shark Fishery Observer Program (CSFOP), a cooperative effort of the Florida Museum of Natural History, located on the University of Florida campus, and the fishers of the United States Atlantic commercial shark fishery that is funded with about $170,000 annually by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Every year since 1994, three biologists working for CSFOP have spent 48 days each on commercial fishing vessels out of North Carolina and Florida gathering data about the number and kind of sharks being caught, either as the primary catch or as a by-catch of other commercial species, like tuna.

“Basically, it’s a scientific review of how many critters are out there,” Burgess says, noting that the program has collected biological data on 34 species and more than 40,000 individual sharks.

“Sharks are difficult to manage,” Burgess says. “It takes a long time for them to reach sexual maturity, and they have only eight to 10 young at a time, so they are easy to knock down and they take a long time to recover.”

The purpose of the CSFOP is to gather the raw data needed to determine the maximum sustainable yield of sharks that can be fished before the population declines.

Thanks, in part, to the efforts of Burgess and his colleagues, Congress passed and President Bush signed a bill providing $1.5 million annually to fund new programs. The Florida Museum of Natural History at UF is joined in the program by the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in California, the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

“All the attention on sharks last summer very much contributed to passage of that bill,” Burgess says. “Everybody we talked to listened.”

Particularly helpful, Burgess says, were U.S. Representatives C.W. “Bill” Young and Dan Miller of Florida, Frank Wolfe of Virginia and Duke Cunningham and Sam Farr of California.
Burgess says the additional funding will allow researchers to conduct a “fishing independent” sampling program, meaning they will capture and gather data about sharks during the closed seasons.

“The CSFOP is starting to give us an idea of what sharks are doing during the fishing seasons,” Burgess says, “but for the other six or seven months a year we really don’t know what’s happening.”

Burgess says scientists will lease commercial boats and equipment that is idle during the off-season, so they will have complete access to the catch and will be able to conduct more biological testing than they can when observing as part of a commercial operation.
The safer, more secure conditions will also allow researchers to take graduate students to sea as part of their training, Burgess says, ensuring the “future of the science.”

The ultimate goal, he says, is to more specifically classify the more than 40 different species of sharks so the most effective management plans can be developed.

Explosive growth in shark fishing over the last 30 years has created this need to carefully monitor the shark population.

“There was a collective rush of testosterone in the sport fishing community after the movie Jaws came out in the mid-1970s,” Burgess says. “The mindset was that all you needed was a big hook and a piece of meat and you could get yourself a ferocious shark to brag about.”

The situation for sharks got even worse, he says, in the mid-1980s when commercial fishers began going after shark for their fins. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in the Orient, where it is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

“It’s the most expensive seafood product we’ve got,” Burgess says. “There’s four fins per critter, you don’t have to refrigerate them and you can get $25 a pound.”

Initially, some sharks were “finned” and their carcasses thrown back into the ocean, but as the market for shark steaks grew, fishers began using the whole fish.

“All indications were that the shark population was declining precipitously, and shark scientists started yelling and screaming that it was going to crash,” Burgess says, so CSFOP was born.

Since the shark catch is headed, gutted and finned at sea, port sampling is not a viable means of quantifying the catch because the carcasses are difficult, if not impossible, to identify to species. In addition, by-catch in the fishery is discarded at sea or used as bait and thus cannot be quantified at the dock.

  CSFOP started as a voluntary program, but as regulations on shark fishing became tougher, the size of the fleet declined and fewer captains were willing to allow observers aboard their boats. Beginning this year, observers will choose from boats randomly selected by the National Marine Fisheries Service to participate in the program.

“There is a natural mistrust of government regulation,” Burgess says. “Hard-working fishers feel entitled to whatever gain they can get, but what some don’t realize is that if they overfish the sharks, they will have to spend even more time and effort just to get the same amount.”

Observers usually spend two to 10 days at a time at sea on 30- to 50-foot boats where there is often not even a bunk or a bathroom.

“This is tough duty and it requires very skilled and seasoned biologists,” Burgess says.

Observer Kevin Johns
with a thresher shark
(photo courtesy of CSFOP)

The CSFOP’s “ground-truthing” of the at-sea catch provides an invaluable source of information for fishers and regulators, Burgess says. This accurate data, gathered by an unbiased team of academic observers, serves as a common starting point for management discussions during the regulatory process.

Burgess is a practical man who recognizes that while, as a scientist, he may be most interested in biological data about sharks, it is attacks that pique the public’s interest. So he uses the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) as a way to create “crossover interest” from shark attacks to shark fishery management.

“As a scientific tool, the ISAF helps us to better understand where, when and why attacks occur so we can give advice on ways to avoid them,” Burgess says, “but its other great value is as a bully pulpit. It gives us an opportunity to talk about more important things than shark attacks.”

With an average of 19 million hits a month on the Florida Museum of Natural History’s sharks Web page, the ISAF has come a long way since it was established by the U.S. Navy in 1958 as part of an effort to develop effective shark repellents for sailors.

During its first 30 years, most of the information in the file was culled from newspaper reports. The file moved around to various research institutions, including the Smithsonian, the Mote Marine Laboratory and the University of Rhode Island before settling at the University of Florida in 1988.

The file is jointly administered by the Florida Museum of Natural History and the American Elasmobranch Society, a non-profit organization that seeks to advance the scientific study of living and fossil sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras.

Since coming to the Florida Museum of Natural History, the ISAF has undergone tremendous growth, thanks in part to computerization and the emergence of the Internet as a communications tool. More than 3,300 individual investigations are currently housed in the ISAF, covering the period from the mid-1500s to the present.

Through the cooperation of the organization’s many worldwide members, the file is growing significantly, Burgess says, with large databases from Australia, California, Hawaii and South Africa now integrated into the system.

“I was tired of seeing every article about sharks be the Jaws image,” Burgess says, “so we have tried to turn the ISAF into a clearinghouse for information on sharks. If we don’t put out good, solid information, people will pick up all the god-awful information that’s out there.”

George Burgess
Director, International Shark Attack File
(352) 392-1721

Related web site:

Five most common sharks caught by commercial fisheries


The Atlantic sharpnose shark (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae) is a small shark that attains an average length of about three feet and average weight of about eight pounds.

The sharpnose has a long snout and labial folds around its mouth. The Atlantic sharpnose shark can be brown, olive-gray or blue-gray turning to white on the underside.  Adults may have some white spots and smaller individuals tend to have black-edged dorsal and caudal fins.

This shark consumes shrimp, mollusks and small fishes.

This small shark is found in the coastal waters of South Carolina, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, where it is a year-round resident.


A large, stocky shark, rarely more than six feet in length, the blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus) is easy to identify by its large first dorsal fin and rather long pectoral fins that are usually tipped in black. The blacktip's color may be grey, grey-brown or bluish grey with a conspicuous white band on the flanks over the pectoral fins. The snout is moderately long and somewhat pointed, and the eyes are small.

Although blacktips feed at various depths, when at the surface their large triangular first dorsal fin may stick out of the water, a well-recognized sign to the average person. Blacktips eat a wide variety of fishes of small to moderate size. The blacktip can put on quite a show when feeding near the surface, launching itself vertically through masses of schooling fishes and out of the water.

Blacktip sharks range all around the world in tropical and warm temperate waters, mostly over the shallower parts of the continental and insular shelves. They can also be found in close inshore waters, in muddy bays, in the mangroves and even in the mouths of rivers.

Very few attacks on people by this shark have ever been recorded. They form a large part of the commercial shark catch and are popular with sport fishers. Like many other shark species, they are under pressure and it is likely their numbers have diminished.


The dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) occurs along continental coastlines in tropical and temperate waters from Nova Scotia to Cuba, including the northern Gulf of Mexico, and from Nicaragua to southern Brazil in the western Atlantic and from southern California to the Gulf of California in the eastern Pacific.

The dusky shark occurs along continental shorelines where it ranges from shallow inshore waters to the outer reaches of the continental shelf and adjacent oceanic waters. Although generally a bottom feeder, it can be found from the surface to a depth of 400 meters.

This species is known to be highly migratory in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, moving north during the summer months and south in the winter.

It is characterized by a snout that is slightly shorter than or as long as the width of the mouth and a first dorsal fin originating over the rear tip of moderately large pectoral fins.

A large dusky shark can attain a length of more than 12 feet, although average size and weight are 10 feet and 350 to 395 pounds.

The dusky shark preys on a wide array of fish and invertebrates, including herring, eels, mullet, groupers, grunts, croakers, bluefish, mackerel, tunas, various flatfish, a variety of sharks, skates and rays, crabs, octopuses, squid and starfish.

The dusky shark is commonly harvested in the western Atlantic where its fins are sold overseas for shark-fin soup base. It is also regularly taken on commercial longlines as a by-catch in the swordfish/tuna fishery.

Although it has been associated with few attacks, the dusky shark is considered potentially harmful, due in large part to its large size and tendency to inhabit shallow coastal waters.

On a global scale, dusky shark populations are considered at-risk. An ongoing decline in numbers indicated by low catch rates in the western North Atlantic has prompted a ban on the harvesting of dusky sharks by U.S. commercial fishers.   -- Craig Knickle


The sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus) is the most abundant species of large shark in the Western Atlantic.

The sandbar shark is a bottom-dwelling, shallow coastal water species that prefers waters on continental shelves, oceanic banks and island terraces, although it is also commonly found in harbors, estuaries and at the mouths of bays and rivers.

Like many sharks of its genus, the sandbar shark undergoes seasonal migrations influenced mainly by temperature, although it is believed that ocean currents also play a significant role. In the western North Atlantic, adult sandbars move as far north as Cape Cod during the warmer summer months and return to the south at the onset of the cooler weather.

The sandbar shark’s most distinguishing characteristic is its taller-than-average first dorsal fin. It has a short, bluntly rounded snout that is shorter than the width of the mouth.

The sandbar is a moderately large shark that can reach more than seven feet in length but more typically grows to six feet. The average weight is about 120 pounds.

The sandbar shark is an opportunistic bottom-feeder that preys on relatively small fishes, mollusks and crustaceans. Common food items include various bony fishes, eels, skates, rays, dogfish, octopus, squid, bivalves, shrimp and crabs. The sandbar shark feeds throughout the day but becomes more active at night.

The sandbar shark plays an important role in the commercial shark fishery along the eastern United States. In fact, because of its numbers, moderate size, palatable meat and high fin-to-carcass ratio, it is a primary targeted species.

Due to its preference for smaller prey and its tendency to avoid beaches and the surface, the sandbar shark poses little threat to humans. --Craig Knickle


The tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvieri) is found throughout the world's temperate and tropical waters, with the exception of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a wide-ranging species that is at home both in the open ocean and in shallow coastal waters.

This shark has a notable tolerance for many different kinds of marine habitat but generally prefers murky waters in coastal areas. It is commonly found in river estuaries, harbors and other inlets where runoff from the land may attract a high number of prey items. It is often seen at the surface and has been reported to depths of 350 meters.

One of the most easily recognized sharks, the tiger gets its name from dark black spots and vertical bars that run the length of the body. The tiger shark has a robust head with large eyes and a very blunt snout. The mouth itself is large. The broad first dorsal fin originates behind the pectoral fins, and a much smaller second dorsal fin initiates behind the curved anal fin.

One of the largest sharks, the tiger shark commonly reaches a length of 10-14 feet and a weight of between 850 and 1,400 pounds. The largest specimens are believed to attain a length of more than 17 feet and weigh more than 2,000 pounds.

The tiger shark has a reputation as an animal that will eat almost anything, including sea turtles, rays, other sharks, bony fishes, sea birds, dolphins, squid, various crustaceans and carrion. The tiger shark's highly serrated teeth combined with the saw-like action from shaking the head back and forth allows it to tear chunks from much larger marine animals.

Although not targeted directly by the commercial fishery in the U.S., the tiger shark is routinely harvested for its fins and flesh.

The tiger shark is second only to the white shark in number of reported attacks on humans. Its large size and voraciousness make it a formidable predator in the ocean. -- Craig Knickle

In the Footsteps of The Shark Lady


Sharks have fascinated Alexia Morgan since she was a young girl and first read about the exploits of Eugenia Clark, the pioneering marine biologist known as the “Shark Lady.”

Clark was founding director of Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory and has authored three books and more than 160 articles about sharks, including a dozen for National Geographic.

“Her stories about sharks really appealed to me,” Morgan says, “and the fact that she was a female scientist.”
Today, Morgan is blazing her own trail in shark science as the first female observer on

the Commercial Shark Fishery Observer Program.
   George Burgess & Alexia Morgan

Throughout the shark-fishing seasons, which run from January to April and July to October, Morgan and two other observers employed by the program spend up to 10 grueling days at a time on commercial fishing boats.

A typical shark-fishing boat trails five to 15 miles of 1,200-pound monofilmant line with up to 1,500 baited hooks along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and then spends up to six hours reeling in the line, which can carry hundreds of sharks, dead and alive.

Morgan’s job is to gather as much data as she can in the few seconds it takes the fishers to turn each shark, many still alive, into seafood.

“I try not to get in their way because that will only irritate them,” says Morgan, who holds a master’s degree in marine biology. “I’ve got a form on which I record species, length and reproductive information. I just try to get it all down while they’re reeling in the line. There will be plenty of time later to process the information.”

After the catch has been taken aboard the boat, Morgan makes additional observations, measuring the sex organs of the male sharks and counting the pups in the uterus of pregnant females.

Morgan considers herself lucky if she has a bunk on the boat, and even luckier if the toilet facilities are more than a bucket.

“After a few days, I’m ready to come back in,” she says.

Given her commitment to shark science, Morgan says watching the harvest of so many sharks can be difficult, but she adds that her exposure to the commercial fishing industry has tempered her views.

“My viewpoints have changed, and working with the fishers will probably change them more,” she says. “I started out being a real leftist, thinking all shark fishing should end, but now I believe you can harvest fish from the ocean sustainably.”