They can be the size of great white sharks and they swim in Puget Sound. Don’t catch them

Washington boasts a diverse and rich ecosystem, but it still may come as a surprise that our waters are home to no less than 12 species of sharks on the coast and Puget Sound.

If this thought elicits a reaction of: “I’m never going swimming again!” – you have little to fear. Since 1837, there have only been two unprovoked shark attacks on humans in Washington, both in Grays Harbor County. Neither was fatal.

The reality is that humans are a bigger threat to sharks than they are to us. Sharks are apex predators that keep biodiversity balanced by maintaining the species below them in the food chain. They ensure fish aren’t overutilizing a single area, taking out the weak and sick so disease doesn’t spread in populations. They’re positive markers for ocean health with each species playing an integral role.

Yet, sharks are still slowly recovering from a tarnished reputation, once depicted as fearsome human killers – a reputation that can sadly get them killed if they accidentally cross our path.

Which could be exactly what happened to the sixgill shark that I viewed a scientific dissection of recently. I had permission to view and photograph this scientific dissection via an invite by a longtime fisheries biologist friend. Dissections are not public events.

Experts dissect a sixgill shark on a Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife lab table. They determined she likely made a meal of someone’s bait and was killed during the release process.
Experts dissect a sixgill shark on a Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife lab table. They determined she likely made a meal of someone’s bait and was killed during the release process.

A reclusive deep-water species that’s generally found on the coast, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists think that sixgill sharks come into Puget Sound to pup.

While it’s unknown how long they stay for (and what their population sizes and exact diets are), the shallower waters of the Puget Sound have enabled us to learn more about them.

The Seattle Aquarium has been studying them since 2003 after they noticed the occasional sixgill underneath their pier. Divers have also seen them near Alki and Redondo Beach.

We know they can grow up to 14 feet in length – comparable in size to “great” white sharks –making them the third-largest predatory shark in the world. However, almost all sighted in Puget Sound are sub-adults.

On the WDFW lab table was a sleek, black female bluntnose sixgill shark, weighing 200 pounds with a total length of just over eight and a half feet, found deceased near Ross Point Lighthouse on Vashon Island.

Probable cause of death? Judging by the hook in her mouth and gaff mark on the left side of her head, she made a meal of someone’s bait and was likely killed during the careless release process. WDFW made this conclusion carefully after noting that her internal organs were unharmed, healthy even.

A gaff hook is used to help lift heavy fish out of the water onto a boat; it should never be used when trying to release an animal without harm.

Fishing mishaps

Her case wasn’t an anomaly, nor was she the first sixgill to be discovered dead this year from fishing mishaps. As of May 2023, WDFW has recorded five sixgill sharks found deceased. Three died in relation to fishing equipment. The other two died of unknown causes. There were none recorded in 2022 and only four recorded in all of 2021.

“They are mainly accidentally killed by fishing gear,” said Lisa Hillier, WDFW senior biologist and shark manager for Washington state.

This goes beyond accidentally hooking a sixgill. Hillier described that sharks are using their strong jaws to get into crab and shrimp pots, then accidentally swallowing the plastic bait boxes, causing the box to become lodged in their throats.

If a sixgill is accidentally caught while fishing, a gaff hook shouldn’t even be an option. The best protocol is to use a long-handled fishhook remover to take the hook out of its mouth without removing the shark from the water.

“Be careful of the bite-y end,” Hillier advises. “And if the shark is panicked, cutting the line altogether is a good option too.”

Sixgills are listed as near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2012, Washington enacted its own protections. If caught, it is prohibited to remove them from the water. It’s also illegal to actively fish for a sixgill, and they cannot be retained in recreational or commercial fisheries. Meaning, if they are hooked, it is illegal to keep them.

If a shark is found on a beach already deceased, call WDFW directly to report the stranding. While dissections can offer some information about these creatures, it’s hard not to be frustrated over the needless death.

The female sixgill was beautiful, her body built for the deep water she should have still been swimming in. We don’t know if she pupped while in the Puget Sound, nor where she would have gone next. Seeing an already understudied species lost due to human error stings.

“I would love to know how long sixgills are hanging out in the Puget Sound and what their primary diets are,” Hillier said.

All of which would take more research on the species. Shark research is hard to get funding for, in part, because sharks aren’t a commercial species.

Yet the irony is that they affect commercial species, namely fish populations. Having wildlife managers understand that shark research and protections are about the health of the system, rather than one targeted stock, could be helpful for future research.

This also could start with turning their reputation around in the public eye – something that Gig Harbor nonprofit Harbor WildWatch is helping with. Their Sharks of the Salish Sea exhibit educates visitors about all 12 shark species in our waters through specimen loaned from WDFW. From a thresher shark tail to shark jaws, they offer a free opportunity to learn and abate fear surrounding sharks.

Sharks are critical to our waters. Without them, our ecosystem would suffer. And they’re far from threatening to humans. Taking the small steps to educate ourselves about them, avoiding conflict while fishing, and reducing fear will only help to lead to future protections and research.

Carly Vester
Carly Vester

Carly Vester has been writing an environmental column for The Peninsula Gateway since 2019. Her storytelling focuses on the intersection of people and the outdoors — from adventures across the west, to our environment and the rich history surrounding it. Her documentary films have screened internationally and her writing has been published locally and regionally.