Shark Week


To celebrate the annual phenomenon known as Shark Week, the following articles and news items come from historic Alaska newspapers, some of which have been newly made available online through Chronicling America.

These shark-related news items point to the utility of sharks as an oceanic commodity. Their skin, several note, can be made into leather, and shark oil, much like whale oil and seal oil, s well as People have hunted sharks in Alaska for hundreds of years, but the First World War marked a turning point in the use of sharkskin and shark oil.

Shark Fishing New Industry: What is considered practically a new industry is the catching of sharks in Alaskan waters. There is a great demand for the oil and skins especially since the European war began. Messrs.J. H. Scott, brother of Gutherie Scott, of Juneau and Jas. Lee, are developing this industry. Their operations are carried on from a large gasoline scow, 78 feet in length, covered with a house, and the necessary equipment for lifting the sharks aboard and extracting the oil. They have been so engaged for some time past and a good sized catch has already been made, the skins of which will be shipped to Seattle on an early steamer and thence transported to England. The skins are generally used for recoil pads in machine guns and the oil for lubricating aeroplane engines. The species of shark is the common mud variety found in the waters of the North Pacific; the skins average in weight about 200 pounds; the sharks when caught weigh from 400 to 1500 pounds; the skins are placed in brine tanks for a number of days and thereafter are dry salted and baled for shipment; the shark liver is thrown in the steam kettle and the oil extracted; livers run about 85 percent oil and produce about 6 gallons of oil each. The outfit has been operating since July 15th, and over one hundred and fifty sharks have been brought in, 90 some have been captured during the past week. A trawl line is used in catching the shark, one similar to a halibut line. The scow is now tied up at Cash Cole's dock and will prove interesting to all who may wish to inspect it. It is a twin screw and is named Elliot. --Dispatch.
Image credit: The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 13 Sept. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
The Universal By-Products Co., of Seward, now claim to be on a firm financial footing and their representative says that they will handle sharks and the products thereof, including the hide. The manufacturing plant will be in Seattle, while their fishing headquarters will be at Seward.
Image credit: Douglas Island news. (Douglas City, Alaska), 16 May 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Other stories recount in thrilling detail the “killer” nature of sharks as a stealth predator. Note the location of these stories: none take place in Alaska, yet the charged rhetoric instills the reader with a sense of fear regarding these “dangerous”, “deadly” fish.

Saved from Hungry Sharks: The quick wit of Harry Renkell, chief officer of the steamship Alleghany of the Hamburg-American line's Atlas service, saved William Thomas, a longshoreman of Aux Cayes, Haiti, from being torn to pieces by a school of man eating sharks when he fell into the waters of the port of Aux Cayes. At the time the Alleghany, on her southern trip, was unloading in the Haitian port. All day the vessel had been surrounded by a school of man eating sharks. Chief Officer Renkell was sitting on deck with a heavy caliber rifle at his side, waiting for a shot at one of them, when Thomas, who was working on one of the lighters tied up to the Alleghany, lost his footing and went overboard. A half dozen of the sharks swimming about the bow of the steamer made a rush at the longshoreman, and Mr. Renkell, realizing that it would be useless to shoot, seized a big square of salt beef, which the cook was preparing for dinner, and hurled it into the water ten feet from the struggling man. Evidently the sharks preferred the salt meat to human flesh, for they halted in their rush to fight for it. Though the struggle lasted but a moment, the diversion gave Thomas time to seize a rope thrown to him and regain the lighter. When safely on board he was so overcome with fright that he was prostrated for hours. The sharks, some of them a dozen feet in length, swam about the lighter, snapping their huge jaws, until Mr. Renkell succeeded in wounding several with his rifle. Later with another piece of the salt beef for bait he succeeded in hooking one which when hauled aboard measured ten feet. The jaws of this shark, which Mr. Renkell took home as a souvenir to decorate his Hoboken home, are two feet in length.
Image credit: The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 28 Jan. 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
The White Shark: The shark of sharks, the real "man eater" and one of the most dreaded, is the white shark. This variety reaches a length of thirty-five feet and a weight of 2,000 pounds. Its head is long and flat, and the snout far overhangs the mouth. Its six rows of teeth are sharp as lancets and notched like saws. Its mouth is very large, so that one has been known to cut a man's body completely in two at a singe snap of its cruel jaws and another to swallow one at a gulp. Near Calcutta one of these sharks was seen to swallow a bullock's head, horns and all. From the stomach of another a bull's hide was taken entire, and the sailor who made the discovery insisted that the bull had been swallowed whole and all except the hide had been digested. From the stomach of another was taken a lady's workbox filled with the usual contents, scissors and all. It is commonly the white shark which follows the vessel at sea day after day and week after week.
Image credit: The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 04 March 1910. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Game Shark Tackles Torpedo: A shark which had appropriated Noyac bay, off Sag Harbor, N.Y., violently attacked a torpedo that invaded those waters. The shark caught sight of the torpedo cruising peacefully along at 30 knots an hour and started to chase it into Peconic bay and thence into the Atlantic. The shark caught up with the torpedo and gave it warning that the waters thereabouts were reserved, but it refused to be scared off and with a petulant whir of its tail continued on. The shark rudely pushed it aside. The torpedo paid no attention to the aggressiveness of the big fish until the shark turned over to sink its teeth in the torpedo's nose. (Witnesses have made affidavits stating that the shark did turn over before it bit in spite of the recent edict to the contrary from Oyster Bay, where nonreversible sharks are said to abound.) As the shark's teeth sank into the torpedo it exploded with rage. The shark was found several hours later and several hundred feet from the scene of battle. The torpedo had been fired from the gun barge E.W. Bliss in the torpedo testing grounds of the Bliss Manufacturing company. It was of the Bliss-Leavitt dirigible type, with a range of 3,500 yards and a speed of 30 knots. This particular torpedo had been fired at the target nets in the bay. A few seconds before it should have reached the nets it was seen to explode, and the shark, which had evidently taken it for a new kind of big fish, was thrown into the air. When it was picked up in the nets it had been almost cut to pieces. The naval officers who were attending the trials will swear to the story. The shark is the first that has been seen in the waters of the bay so far from the ocean. It was not far from bathing houses.
Image credit: The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 10 Oct. 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Due to stories like these, and overfishing throughout the years, sharks now face endangerment. The following photos from the Alaska State Library Historical Collections and Archives point to the widespread sport hunting that worked to decreased the shark population in Alaska.

Sleeper Shark
Image credit: Alaska State Library, Historical Collections, from the Trevor M. Davis Photograph Collection. Identifier: ASL-P97-1226
Shark fishing
Image credit: Alaska State Archives, from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Title: Shark fishing at Cross Sound, Southeast Alaska, Sept. 1963. Identifier: ASA_A11_RG11_SR603_PF1_Shark3

Here in Alaska, the Salmon Shark is the only species of shark to frequent the North Pacific waters.

Unlike its Atlantic counterparts, the salmon shark poses no real threat to humans, but is allowed as bycatch. The stigma surrounding sharks impacts the salmon shark, as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game note:

“Overfishing is a main concern due to shark’s negative image as an abundant and low-value pest that avidly eats or damages valuable salmon and wrecks gear, which encourages fishers to kill it and add to mortality from finning and capture trauma.”

Events like Shark Week help raise awareness about these majestic, misunderstood creatures. Sharks deserve our respect- and distance.


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