For generations, average Joe anglers cast their lines from Florida’s sandy shores hoping to land one of the ocean’s most ancient creatures, furtive shadows thrumming with power and intrigue.
But the state is taking a closer look at the loosely regulated sport of beach-based shark fishing as concerns mount about hooked sharks being dragged onto the sand, their snouts lifted for photo shoots, gills desiccating in the air and organs crushed under their own weight.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is holding meetings statewide this month, including in West Palm Beach on Aug. 28, to hear suggestions for new rules to govern shark fishing from land.
It’s a passionate topic for a state whose economy is well bolstered by fishing and diving.
“A lot of people love catching big fish, and the shark is just one of the biggest in the ocean,” said Josh Jorgensen, a Palm Beach County resident who founded the Blacktip Challenge tournament. “It’s the top of the food chain. It’s catching the ultimate predator.”
While most shark fishermen release their catch, conservationists fear survival rates are low after a shark is hooked and pulled ashore. This is especially true for protected sharks and those that are more fragile, such as the hammerhead.
Several fishing groups support the creation of some new rules, including banning shark fishing near swimming beaches, but others fear over-regulation will kill a sport that would become out of reach for anyone who can’t afford to do it from a boat.
“The reality in fishing is fish die,” said Jorgensen, who runs the Youtube channel BlacktipH. “Should we ban all fishing because some fish die?”
Struggling at the end of a fisherman’s line, a shark’s body goes into survival overdrive. Deadly amounts of lactic acid build in muscles that can become so fatigued they just stop working. Even if released, the shark can sink to the bottom of the ocean and suffocate, according to shark experts.
If a large shark is hauled onto a beach for a trophy picture, its motionless tail no longer helps pump blood to its small heart. Capillaries on its belly burst, turning white flesh to a rose pink. Internal organs hemorrhage under the crush of gravity where sea water once buoyed its weight.
“Any great hammerhead dragged onto a beach where someone stops to take a photo, that’s almost certainly a dead shark. It won’t survive,” said R. Dean Grubbs, associate director of research for Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory. “You can release them and maybe you think they are in good shape, but a few hours to days later, they die.”
In Florida state waters, which extend 3 miles from shore, 26 shark species are protected, including the hammerhead and tiger shark. That means if they are caught by a shore-based fisherman, they shouldn’t be taken out of the water, or have their release delayed to take pictures.
Pictures are allowed, but they must be taken while the shark is in the process of being released.
David Shiffman, a marine biologist studying sharks at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, said that’s not always happening.
He and three other researchers analyzed 1,256 posts from a shark fishing chat room and found a “minimum of dozens of illegal shark fishing practices.” His findings are outlined in a 2017 report published in the peer-reviewed journal Fisheries Research.
While many anglers are conservation-minded, Shiffman said several were unaware of the rules regarding protected shark species, or they knew about them but broke them anyway.
“It’s macho cowboy behavior,” Shiffman said. “Years of outreach and education and gentle talking has not been enough.”
Shiffman’s suggestions include cutting the line as soon as a fisherman realizes a hammerhead is hooked, leaving protected sharks in deep enough water that their gills are submerged, and limiting areas where shark fishing can occur. Other suggestions include requiring special permits for shore-based shark fishing and restricting baiting water near swimmers. FWC officials said people are particularly concerned about shark fishing near popular beaches, but that there is no “credible evidence that the presence of fishing activity increases the occurrence of nearby shark bites.”
Everyone agrees social media increased the awareness about beach-based shark fishing, including the circulation of photos that may be disturbing or show illegal practices.
“Some people are very concerned when they see someone reeling in a large animal where they were just swimming,” said Gary Jennings, director of the Keep Florida Fishing Initiative with the American Sportfishing Association. “Occasionally, unfortunately, some animals die and obviously people don’t like seeing a shark washing up on the beach.”
That happened last year in May when a 400-pound tiger shark washed up dead north of the Juno Beach Pier with a large hook in its jaw. The sight of the impressive fish lolling in the surf break with curious dogs sniffing at its corpse was shared multiple times, upsetting some conservationists.
Two months later, a video of a shark being violently dragged behind a speeding boat on the west coast of Florida circulated on social media. It led to animal cruelty charges against three men.
“There’s a difference between going deer hunting on the weekends with your dad and traveling to Africa to hunt the last rhino,” Shiffman said. “I want to stress that most anglers are rule abiding and care about the environment, but there is a very intense group that think they are going to do whatever they want.”
For more information on the issue of land-based shark fishing go to www.myfwc.com. The West Palm Beach meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 28 at the Palm Beach County Department of Planning and Zoning, 2300 N. Jog Road.