One of the dead sharks found in the Tennessee River. Courtesy: Tennessean
Mike Organ, The Tennessean
State wildlife biologists aren't really sure how three sharks and an octopus turned up recently in Tennessee waters, but they suspect the creatures were dumped as a hoax.
The sharks, identified as black nose or fine tooth species, were found dead in the Tennessee River over a span of nine days (March 15-23). Each was between 12-14 inches in length. Typically neither species attacks humans.
The octopus was found dead last week in Watts Bar Lake near Chattanooga.
"My main theory is it's probably a hoax,'' said Bobby Wilson, assistant chief of fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "Someone may have caught the sharks and thrown them in the river, although we couldn't find any hook marks."
Another possibility is that a pregnant female shark was caught in the ocean and, after it was cleaned, was discarded into the river where the young sharks survived for a short while.
A less-likely theory: the sharks came from the Gulf of Mexico into the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which connects to the Tennessee River.
"That sounds kind of farfetched because these sharks were found dead and they're not fresh water tolerant at all,'' Wilson said.
Other marine species found in Tennessee were believed to have migrated from the Gulf. They include needlenose fish in the Cumberland River and Kentucky Lake, and a striped mullet in Kentucky Lake.
Bull sharks have been caught in the Mississippi River as far north as Illinois, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. No bull sharks have ever been found in Tennessee, Wilson said.
Sharks found recently in the Tennessee River were within 20 miles of each other, in heavy traffic areas.
"All three were relatively close to some access area to the river where, in my opinion, somebody put them so they could be found easier,'' Wilson said.
Initially, officials suspected the sharks had been kept in a salt-water aquarium and either died there or grew too large and were released into the river. Wilson, however, said that wasn't likely after a marine resources division in Alabama identified the species.
"Neither are aquarium-type species,'' Wilson said.
Officials believe the small octopus found below the dam at Watts Bar is a separate incident and also may have been a practical joke.
It is illegal to place any fish in public waters in Tennessee. The penalty is $50 plus court costs and up to 30 days in jail, Wilson said.