NANTUCKET — The Shark Wrestler hands the bent fishing pole to his girlfriend and races into the knee-deep water. He lunges at the tail of the 7-foot-2-inch sandbar shark, only to have the 200-plus-pounder slither away.
On the fifth try, Elliot Sudal grabs the shark’s tail and tugs it toward the beach. His girlfriend, a beauty pageant contestant from Maine, dashes into the water with a tape measure and calls out measurements (the shark’s, not hers). Pictures are taken, and within roughly two minutes, the shark is released and heading toward Portugal.
An observer on the beach tells the muscular Sudal that he’s crazy.
“A little bit,” he says with a smile. “That had some risky moments in it. It slapped me in the back. Its tail hit me.”
His back has a red mark, courtesy of the pregnant shark, but Sudal has avoided its razor-sharp teeth.
“I guess you can say I’m an adrenaline junkie,” he says. “This is the most extreme form of surf fishing there is.”
Sudal, 27, has made quite a splash for himself after a shark-tugging video shot by his cousin on a cellphone on Nantucket two years ago went viral, with more than 2.8 million hits. He appeared on TV and founded the Nantucket Shark Tagging Club.
“It is recreational angling.” he says. “We are tagging sharks for NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. It’s a federally funded tagging program that’s been going on for over 50 years.’’
Today he’s out of tags, but NOAA’s Apex Predators Program has confirmed that he is a voluntary participant in the tagging program, the aim of which is to provide data for the management of large Atlantic sharks.
“I’m doing this to test the effectiveness of land-based shark fishing as a research and tagging method,” says Sudal.
But Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States, questions his motives and techniques.
“The dramatic Instagram photos he’s taking, holding their mouths open and holding them in his arms, with or without the help of his lovely assistant, speak to me more of exhibitionism than they do of conservation,” says Young.
The criticism intensified when Sudal’s girlfriend, Marisa Butler, who was Miss Maine National Sweetheart in 2013, joined him last October.
“I started getting personal death threats,” says Butler, 21, of Standish, Maine. “People telling me, ‘You should kill yourself,’ or ‘I hope the shark ends up getting a bite out of you,’ things like that, when we’re trying to be out here to protect these sharks.
“It’s really sad. They see a picture of me and a fish and assume it’s a hunting pose. People think we’re killing the shark.”
Sudal estimates that he has caught and released more than 130 sharks casting from shore and using 10-inch bluefish strips as bait. He wants to be the poster boy for shark conservation and loves teaching kids about sharks.
“I know this is controversial,” he says. “I want to use this attention for good, rather than being some macho guy on the beach catching sharks.”
Sudal says the sharks he lands off Low Beach in Siasconset are almost all female, pregnant, and average 7 feet long. All sandbar (or brown) sharks are threatened by overfishing and protected by law. Sudal says they migrate from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.
“I’m almost positive they’re all coming here to have their pups,” he says.
Butler, an economics major at Stonehill College, says she is no longer afraid of getting in the water with the sharks.
“No,” she says. “You actually have a higher chance of getting hit by lightning than being bit by a shark.”
She should know.
“I was struck with lightning when I was in sixth grade in Standish, Maine,” she says. “It wasn’t a direct hit. My sister said I was seizing on the floor and in a cold sweat.”
Initially, though, she was scared of the sharks.
“First time, I ended up getting slapped in the face by one,” says Butler. “But it’s funny, once you get used to how they move, you know when to get close.”
She insists she is not in this for publicity.
“The best way to put the message that these sharks need to be protected is using a visual stimuli like a picture,” she says. “By getting a beautiful photo, we’re getting people’s attention. It’s completely justified. All the pictures are for [those] purposes, not to get me and Elliot known.’’
But Young says the battle to bring the fish to shore stresses the animal, and the time spent out of the water decreases the shark’s chances of survival. She cites a Canadian study on blue sharks that says 19 percent don’t survive catch-and-release fishing.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “Keeping an exhausted fish out of the water is like holding a bag over a runner that has just completed a marathon.”
Sudal believes all the sharks he releases live.
“They all swim away,” he says. “They’re just fine, in my opinion. They’ll zoom back out. They’re sharks; they are super resilient.”
But a 2014 University of Miami catch-and-release study (that didn’t include sandbar sharks) found that delayed shark mortality varies widely according to species.
“Just because a shark swims away after it is released doesn’t mean that it will survive the encounter,” says Austin Gallagher, lead author of the report.
Never been bitten
Sudal questions why there is such an uproar over his recreational fishing while 70 million-100 million sharks are killed annually, mostly for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy.
He says he no longer lifts sharks from the water for photo ops, and he tries to tag, measure, and return them to sea in less than two minutes. Sudal also uses a circle hook, which causes less damage, and tries to keep their gills in the water.
“Sure, you’re not supposed to drag sharks really harshly by their tail,” he says, “[but] I’m moving them 3 feet in the wash. Have you ever seen them on a boat? They go ballistic, and boats are a lot less forgiving than sand.
“People think the sharks are all going to die and they freak out. They think because you are fishing here, you’re attracting these man-eaters to the beach and they’re going to eat their kids, too, which is so not the case.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound Sudal never has been bitten. He says the sharks feast on rays, flounder, and bluefish.
But he still spends $1,600 for shark-bite insurance, and he has had some close calls.
“There’s no doubt in my mind they can take off your hand if they wanted to,” says Sudal, who wears a fossilized shark tooth around his neck. “It’s dangerous.”
Once he had a shark’s tail in his hands when a 6-foot wave crashed over them.
“The shark literally swam over my whole body,” he says. “I lost my hat and my sunglasses, but I didn’t get bit.’’
Another time, while fishing from a boat, he hooked a shark that took off, giving him a Nantucket sleigh ride.
But he doesn’t really like the “shark wrestler” tag put on him by the media. He thinks it makes him look dumb.
Sudal received a Bachelor of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Sciences from Central Connecticut State University in 2010. He worked as a volunteer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service as an island keeper on Chimon Island (Norwalk, Conn.) and at a fish hatchery in Connecticut. He is a licensed captain and currently drives a 35-foot Boston Whaler for a New York family.
He swears he will never work a “real job.” Ever.
‘Riding the wave’
Sudal gets free rods, reels, and boxes of hats and shirts that companies want him to wear in his Instagram photos. He also sells “Shark Wrestler” T-shirts, he says, with some proceeds set aside for buying satellite and acoustic tags.
He denies he is a media hound, but acknowledges he’s “riding the wave.”
“People say we’re just going for attention,” he says. “OK, I like the shark photos that are published — there’s some wild stuff. Who doesn’t like being on TV?”
A total outdoorsman, Sudal recently appeared on the survivor show “The Raft,” on the National Geographic Channel. He was isolated in a 4-foot-by-4-foot inflatable with no provisions and no shade.
“I got sun sores; it was bad,” he says.
Greg Skomal, a senior fisheries scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, says Sudal is breaking no laws.
“As long as Elliot’s fishing is legal, and it is, he is welcome to conduct that activity,” says Skomal in an e-mail. “I lived on Martha’s Vineyard for 20 years, and the surf anglers used to catch and release sandbar sharks off the east end of the island. I used to work with them to tag those sharks. In fact, I learned quite a bit about this species because of these activities.
“What are people trashing Elliot about? I don’t pay attention to social media.”
Sudal echoed those sentiments.
“Hopefully we can learn something that results in the long-term comeback of these species that have almost been fished to extinction,” he says.
But he admits he needs a new moniker.
“ ‘Shark wrestling’ doesn’t sound like you’re trying to save any sharks,” he says.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.