Conservationists push for more regulations to shark fishing

JUNO BEACH, Fla. - People have been talking about this story for days ever since we broke the story of the dead tiger shark on Juno Beach.

Experts feared the shark died after a battle with fishermen and ignited a huge discussion between the shark community and local fishermen.

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"It's a shame to see these animals stressed out on the beach or even dead," said underwater shark photographer and author Michael Patrick O'Neill.
 
Discoveries of shark carcasses at Phil Foster Park in the past several months, combined with the discovery at Juno Beach, only heated up the outcry from shark conservationists such as long-time shark photographer Richard Apple.

He said he has an issue with the catch-and-release aspect, especially when people are not considerate of the animal.

"It's been going on for years. This didn't start last week. For people like myself, it's even more frustrating that you don't see more action," he said. "Dragging the sharks up on the beach, not cutting line in the water or even giving them that kind of a chance to survive."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allows harvesting and the catch-and-release of several shark species, but with bag and size limits. Unknown catches are to be treated as a prohibited species and should be released.

It's not illegal to leave hooks in their mouths, but fishermen are encouraged to remove them.

"The rule is you must release that shark free, alive and unharmed so you must release it quickly. While there's not a specific time limit on that, the key is unharmed," said Amanda Nalley, a public information officer with the FWC.

But the practice can end badly for the animal.

"A dive friend of mine put it eloquently, 'When you fight a shark for 40 minutes or longer, it's similar to having a person run a marathon and then have them hold their breath for 10 minutes,'" said O'Neill.

Nalley said they encourage fishermen to be gentle with the animal when doing a catch-and-release.

"That fish cannot breathe well when it's out of the water so you do want to try to minimize the amount of time to take photos. Take photos during the act of release," she said. "We want them to keep in mind that the quicker they can release the shark and quicker they can land that shark, the longer that shark is going to survive."

O'Neill said what is even more frustrating is seeing pictures of concerning practices social media.

"Some of the photography that you see of the sharks dead or anglers posing with them, it's clearly out of the spirit of the regulation where you have sharks like the hammerhead, tiger and the lemon, which are protected from harvest, and if they're sitting on dry sand with people on their back, posing for pictures and pulling their jaws back," he said. "I think the FWC should be a little bit more strict."

Nalley explained that FWC does have a division of law enforcement that specifically looks at internet crimes, through content shared or submitted to FWC from the Internet.

"There are occasions where they can't make a case there or figure out what has happened," she said. "People can turn it in to us."

Nalley said FWC also relies on people to report illegal activity by emailing tip@myfwc.com or sending a text message to *FWC.

While it's difficult to track every incident, FWC has been discussing the concerns brought up by shark conservationists.

"It's something that we are constantly working on and constantly trying to develop new messaging and new ways to reach out to people to talk to them about the different ways people interact with sharks," said Nalley.

Angela Smith, founder of non-profit Shark Team One in Fort Lauderdale, works to conserve endangered shark species and marine ecosystems.

"The dead tiger sharks washing up along Southeast Florida beaches recently represent the critical need for more education about endangered shark species, shark sanctuaries and amendments to state and federal fishing laws," she said.

She said state laws should be revised to make eliminate any gray areas or confusion for anglers.

"Recreational fishers think this means that as long as you don’t visibly kill the animal it’s OK to fish for it as long as you release it," she said. "The state laws should be revised to not allow any fishing for prohibited shark species. Meaning prohibited species can’t be targeted, hooked or landed by any means."

The FWC encourages people to email concerns to marine@myfwc.com. The commission meets five times a year in Tallahassee to go over regulations and potential changes to the law as needed. The next meeting will July 10 in Orlando. Click here to learn more

"That's how rules get changed. People have concerns, they bring them to us and that becomes a part of our radar and a part of our discussions and that's where it all begins," said Nalley.

The FWC recently released a detailed set of guidelines of 'Shark Smart' fishing tips on their website.  

In the guidelines, FWC lists proper ways to handle sharks to ensure its survival and health:

  • Minimize fight time. Use Shark-Smart tackle.
  • Minimize handling. Touching sharks can remove their protective mucous layer and cause harm.
  • Need to handle or touch the shark? Use wet hands or a wet towel (do not use a wet towel when handling other fishes.)
  • Keep sharks, especially the gills, in the water.
  • Removing sharks from the water increases the likelihood of injuries to the angler or the shark.
  • NEVER bring a large shark onto a fishing vessel, a pier or bridge or onto dry land beyond the surf zone unless you plan to harvest it.
  • Minimize release time and do not delay release just to take pictures.
  • Do not sit on the shark’s back or pull back on the snout to reveal the teeth.
  • Use a long-handled de-hooking device to help with hook removal.
  • If it is not possible to remove the hook using a long-handled de-hooking device, cut the hook or leader as close as you can.
  • Sharks that swim off with a long length of line trailing behind them may be less likely to survive.

Pete Schulz, who co-owns fishing headquarters in Jupiter with his brother Tommy, said local fishermen need to be smart when doing a catch-and-release.

There are state-wide tournaments, including one that takes place on the beach, that can be difficult.

"One, you have to pick an area that's far from swimmers. Be smart about it, think about where you're going to be fishing," said Schulz. "Have your camera ready. Take your picture and do your measurement and make you get them back out there as soon as possible so that they're unharmed."

There are several species of shark and fish that are prohibited from landing or harvesting. If you are unsure, Schulz suggests downloading the Fish Rules app developed by a local Jupiter man. It lets you search for any fish and read the regulations, bag limit, and restrictions for the animal. It's free in the Apple or Android stores.

But Schulz said even if fishermen follow the rules, nature may still take over.

"People often think when they see a shark on the beach that someone did something wrong. A lot of times, they did everything that they could and sometimes the fish just dies," he said. "It's unfortunate and it does happen."

He warns not following the rules can ruin it for those who do.

"Valuable part of the ecosystem. And they're an apex predator. We need them. Be mindful of that when you get them alongside the boat," he said.

Either way, O'Neill and Apple hope the FWC can do more to prevent shark deaths.

"They do a lot of good things, don't get me wrong. But when it comes to protecting the sharks, they're just AWOL," said Apple. "Unless you put the spotlight on FWC to be able to ask the questions in front of the public, they don't seem to do anything. Those of us who are involved, we do as much as we can, and it's very difficult."

 

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