Beautiful and deadly: The sharks that swim in our waters, the people who love them and the people who fish them (A series in three parts)

Beautiful and deadly: The sharks that swim in our waters, the people who love them and the people who fish them (A series in three parts)

BY MARCY SHORTUSE – This is the first in a three-part series about the sharks that swim in our waters, especially during tarpon season. This first part will be from a science perspective, the second part will pertain to the shark fishermen who come to our island and the third part will discuss in-depth what types of sharks are in our waters and how dangerous they are to humans.

Many islanders were up in arms recently as the news of a decapitated shark washing up on the made its rounds. It was unclear as to what type of shark it was as it had no head, but it was narrowed down to either a hammerhead or a bull shark that was found washed ashore on Sunday morning, May 20. The reason for the decapitation would be, of course, to save the jaws as a trophy … but many in the shark fishing community believe the shark was already dead and floating in the water prior to its jaws being taken.

There’s no real way to determine the truth now, as the carcass was disposed of that same night. At least two of the posts on Facebook pertaining to the shark (we won’t show a picture here because it might be too graphic for some readers) elicited a lot of animosity between conservationists and anglers – many, many pages of comments.

The mere mention of sharks seems to dredge up a lot of animosity. Many on the island don’t want it publicized we even have sharks here, so as not to detract from the tourism industry. Others have some very negative feelings toward the shark fishermen who come to our beaches, usually at night, and fish in a very different way than what we are used to. It has been a hot topic for years, and as a journalist it isn’t an easy story to document because there are so many people on both sides who won’t even give their real names.

One of those anonymous sources is a person who contacted the Beacon after this writer inquired on one of the shark Facebook posts if anyone would be interested in providing information for a story. It is not normally our policy to use anonymous sources in the newspaper, but sometimes the best information comes from those same sources.

This person claims to have sent the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission a 100-page report outlining why land-based shark fishing practices in the state have garnered so much derision, and why regulations should be adapted to be more protective of sharks. This person was also fully aware of the FWC’s recent press release regarding shore-based shark fishing.

On April 25 the FWC released a statement regarding shark-related issues.

“After listening to public comments on and discussing the current and future management of sharks in Florida at the April meeting in Fort Lauderdale, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission directed staff to continue to stay engaged on all shark-related issues and to pursue development of draft regulations for shore-based shark fishing,” the release read. “The FWC understands this is an issue that is important to the public, especially those who have had negative interactions, and we want to work toward finding solutions. Staff will workshop and bring draft regulations to a future Commission meeting.”

The authors of a lengthy presentation are listed as Nancy Sheridan, Krista Shipley and Melissa Recks in the Division of Marine Fisheries Management. It covers the diet and life cycle of sharks in general, than goes more in-depth about the history of state regulation regarding the harvesting and fishing of sharks, including the fact that Florida enacted strict regulations in the early 1990s on shark fishing, particularly in regard to shark finning (the removal of the fins at sea, discarding the rest of the shark). Harvest is prohibited for 26 species of shark in Florida waters, including those listed at right, and that an angler is allowed a bag/vessel limit of one shark per day per person with a maximum of two sharks per vessel.

These regulations, in part, are why sharks are beginning to make a comeback in Florida waters. Worldwide, though, a quarter of shark species are threatened with extinction. This is due to mass commercial fishing in countries with little to no regulation, the previously-high demand for shark fins in China and loose regulation regarding selling and shipping shark meat and fins internationally. While laws across the globe are slowly strengthening and people are experiencing a growing appreciation for conservation, it is important to remember that sharks are delicate creatures that are vitally important in the food chain.

According to the FWC study, one of the common concerns voiced by Floridians is that fishing for sharks has an unnecessary impact on shark mortality. They argue that stressing the fish by fighting it increases lactic acid buildup in the shark’s body – which is primarily one giant muscle – and that they are very susceptible to this type of death. In fact, some of the Facebook controversy indicated that the headless shark in question was actually dead when it washed ashore, possibly the victim of a tarpon fisherman who decided to fight it instead of cutting the line. There is no way to prove that now, but it does account for some of the dead sharks that wash ashore on our beaches or are found floating in local waters every year.

Another argument by shark advocates is that most shore-based shark fishermen are not being responsible in supporting the shark’s body weight by keeping it in the water, particularly the swim bladder. Failure to do so can increase damage to the shark’s internal organs, an argument that was also presented with large tarpon.

The FWC has listed potential options in the future regarding shore-based shark fishing that include increasing their public outreach and education programs, revisiting temporary possession regulations (photo opportunities, etc.), possible permitting options, legally defining fishing gear for shore-based shark fishing and the possible requirement of shark anglers using only circle hooks.

The 2017 case of the “shark-dragging’ men brought a lot of controversy to light regarding the treatment of sharks. While many feel they should be culled from our waters to promote swimming, the loss of a majority of our apex predators in the Gulf would change the entire ecosystem. Even more recently a prominent shark fisherman on Sanibel Island named Elliot Sudal posted a photo of himself with a very large shark that had been dragged onto land for a photo opportunity. He was chastised by the very organization he claimed to work for, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In a statement they said, “Mr. Sudal is not and has never been an employee of NOAA Fisheries nor is he formally affiliated with any of the agency’s programs. He practices citizen science as a volunteer and provides the agency with some of his data.

“The agency remains concerned with Mr. Sudal’s shark and sawfish handling practices. Best practices and guidelines for volunteers call for the immediate release of sharks. Physical handling should be minimized, all species should be kept in the water while tagging and then released quickly. During tagging, sharks should not be dragged onto dry sand or boat decks for any reason.”

Our anonymous source claimed that the shark mortality statistics on the Florida fish kill database are grossly underestimated, as many shark fishermen take great care to section the shark’s body and tow it out far into the Gulf after it is killed. The source also called into question the month-long, shark-tagging tournament that has been held in Punta Gorda in recent years that focused around tagging for research, but in fact claimed the lives of eight sharks during the last event.

“It’s all adrenaline-fueled trophy hunting,” the source said. “I don’t have any problem with people who fish responsibly, even for sharks, if they harvest and eat what they kill. But many times these guys target the prohibited species, the ones they call ‘monsters.’”

In general, the local opinion of shark fishermen appears to be pretty low. There are claims that the beaches are full of trash in the mornings, that they leave “chum” and bait laying around, and that they sometimes leave shark carcasses on the beach.

Next week’s article will be from the shark fisherman’s perspective … please keep an open mind and allow yourself to acknowledge there might be information regarding this sport you aren’t privvy to, and that you might find interesting.