After listening to the tales of fishermen, researchers and conservationists about the plight of the tiger and hammerhead sharks, officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are drafting a rule that would make it a crime to kill the sharks.
Although 22 species of sharks are protected in Florida waters, wildlife officials concluded that the tiger shark and three species of the hammerhead also need protection from recreational anglers who catch the predators for sport and from commercial fishermen who harvest sharks for their highly valued fins, used for shark fin soup, and for shark livers, used in vitamins.
"When the top predators are healthy, we have a healthy ecosystem," said Aaron Podey, a fishery management analyst with the FWC. "I think people are realizing this more and more."
If the proposal is approved, killing one of these newly protected sharks will be a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
But the proposal has angered some anglers who dispute the data used to assess shark populations. They contend that the FWC is merely kowtowing to the anti-fishing agenda of animal rights activists.
"It's 'eco' this and 'eco' that," said captain Bill Goldschmitt, a former commercial shark fisherman and author of Sharkman of Cortez. Goldschmitt, who now hosts a shark tournament, says sharks "are so thick" that some contestants easily meet the one-shark-per-day limit during his five-week tournaments. This year's event begins Oct. 28.
"This tournament isn't about trophies or prize money," Goldschmitt explains on the tournament registration form. "It's about an outdoorsman's freedom to fish."
The proposed rule would not end shark tournaments, as long as caught sharks are released alive. The Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge and Festival in Punta Gorda in May required each boat to have an observer, trained by researchers at the Mote Marine Center for Shark Research.
Contestants also were required to use heavy conventional tackle to reduce the time between hookup and release of all animals, and nonstainless steel circle hooks to avoid the internal hooking of sharks. To prevent more trauma to the shark, the animals were measured in the water using a custom device provided by tournament organizers. Many of the sharks were tagged with satellite-linked transmitters to track their movements after release.
The FWC also is considering a trophy tag program, similar to the program used for tarpon. A limited number of tags would be sold, and anglers with tags would be allowed to catch and kill one of the newly protected sharks. The FWC also is developing an educational campaign to encourage the use of circle hooks, which are less likely to get caught in a shark's gut, and tips for safe-release techniques.
Florida's state waters, which extend 3 miles off the Atlantic coast and 9 miles off the Gulf coast, are home to several species of sharks. Many use the state's coastal waters as nursery grounds for their pups. Sharks typically move inshore and north in the spring and summer and offshore and south in the fall and winter.
Statistically, humans pose a much greater danger to sharks than sharks do to humans.
On average, fewer than 10 people die worldwide from shark attacks every year. In Florida, 1 percent of shark attacks are fatal. Fisheries around the world kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually, according to the FWC.
In local waters, one dive boat captain has noticed a dramatic drop in shark sightings when commercial shark fishing begins every summer. Van Blakeman said he saw eight dead tiger sharks and one large hammerhead laid out on a dock at a local marina this summer, waiting for commercial fishermen to cut off their fins.
"This is not a renewable resource, and at this time, we can't quota-hunt them," said Blakeman, who described seeing a tiger shark on a dive as a "wonderful experience."
"We need to back off and stand up for these animals," he said.