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Florida fishermen express concerns over prevalence of sharks

'It wouldn't surprise me if there's five times now as many as there used to be,' fisherman Nick Stanczyk says
Posted at 10:56 PM, Nov 03, 2023

FLORIDA KEYS, Fla. — Across the state of Florida, our waterways are being impacted by a host of issues: rising temperatures, pollution, development, among other problems. But some areas are feeling it more than most.

Reporter Sophia Hernandez and photojournalist Antony Sherrod traveled across the state for a special series of reports we are calling "The State of our Seas."

A challenge South Florida is seeing that some believe has not gone away is the number of sharks in our waters.

But are there really more of them? Or are we just seeing them more often?

"It wouldn't surprise me if there's five times now as many as there used to be," fisherman Nick Stanczyk said.

Videos showing shark encounters all over Florida can be seen all across social media.

"We got into spots where there will be 100 fish sometimes, and you are catching them left and right, and these sharks are just moving in, and they are almost eating them every time you go to these spots now, you almost don’t want to fish there because it's so bad," Nick's brother, Rick, said.

"The last five years in particular, it has been an insane influx of sharks, a lot more of them, a lot more aggressive in areas we have never seen them before," explained Nick Stanczyk.

The Stanczyk brothers run Stanz Fishing. Their family has been running this marina for years.

With more than 200,000 followers on YouTube, people come far and wide to fish in their boats on our coastal waters. But lately, the bites just aren't there.

"They have days they cannot catch a snook," Nick Stanczyk said. "They could see six to eight big lemon sharks back there that are eating about 90% of the fish they hook, and they will try to move spots.”

And he furthered, "And they don't leave. They will stay behind the boat."

The brothers said they aren't sure what's behind the influx in shark sightings and interactions.

Hernandez sat down with Dr. Catherine Macdonald to find out if are there really more sharks in our waters.

"I would say when we talk about an increase in shark sightings, often what we are talking about is an increase in more eyes out for sharks, more than an increase in sharks," Macdonald stated.

The director of the University of Miami's Shark Research and Conservation Program said there is also research to suggest some protected shark populations are showing rebounds. But it is not as high a number as you might think.

"So, sharks, in general, are slow growing and relatively slow reproducing compared to other fishes, and so sharks are more vulnerable to being overfished compared to lots of other species of fish," explained Macdonald. "For that reason, shark fisheries management is always a little bit extra tricky."

According to NOAA, U.S. shark fisheries are some of the most regulated in the world. In Florida, you are able to catch one shark a day, up to two per boat, but only certain species and some have to be a certain size.

The practice of shark finning, removing a shark's fin, and dumping the rest at sea has been prohibited nationwide since 2000.

Twenty years later, Florida made it illegal to import, export or sell shark fins in the state, except if you were a permitted commercial fisherman or seafood dealer.

It's better than where we were, but for some, it's not good enough.

"If a shark is a legal catch, we should be able to sell every part of that shark and to be honest with you, for me, I feel it's pretty disgusting that a piece of an animal we harvested is being thrown away," fisherman Robert Navarro said.

Navarro, better known as "Fly," is a fisherman who organizes big game fishing tournaments around the world.

He believes harvesting the whole shark, as you would a fish, is a better solution to finning and could help keep numbers of sharks at bay.

But his concern is less with the sharks and more about how the sharks are affecting us.

He said now it's the fisheries, but it could soon become a tourism issue because of headlines of sharks biting people, causing those who come to our waters to be fearful.

"Now they start calling for something to be done with the sharks, and I don't want to see that happen," Navarro said. "This is not the shark's fault. This is a management issue."

"But when you are having this many interactions, you have a lot of people who start getting animosity, so you have to be careful where that line gets drawn."

While there may be slightly more sharks in our waters, Macdonald re-emphasizes it has more to do with climate. Our warmer waters, which have been getting warmer every year, impact sharks' migratory patterns and also their metabolism. They have to eat more in order to stay alive.

While some may want to take drastic measures to stop these fish, Macdonald reminds others of their important role.

"Sharks both prey on their prey species, which helps to control those populations, but also shape their evolution, and they can strain the behavior of their prey," Macdonald said. "So if you remove sharks from an area, you run the risk that prey species will not only increase in number but also change their behavior in ways that might be harmful to those ecosystems."

For those who make a living on their catches of the day, sharks have become a newfound challenge, hurting their bottom line, restaurants and the food market.

A solution they propose is potentially eating sharks, similar to countries like Indonesia and Spain.

But whether that becomes a reality, only time will tell.

"Killing a shark is so taboo, and it's been publicized to be so bad. But that's not the truth here anymore, especially in South Florida," Nick Stanczyk said. "Anyone you talk to down here is going to tell you in the last few years how many sharks we see, how many more we deal with and they are going to be frustrated no doubt about it."