Ever since a group of sadistic bro-foons dragged a shark behind their speedboat earlier this year (and videoed themselves laughing through it all), I’ve been trying to figure out what’s against the law when it comes to shark fishing off the coast of Florida and elsewhere. The same group of men also posted online footage of themselves torturing two hammerhead sharks, shooting one in the side and pouring beer over the gills of another to watch it slowly suffocate (among additional grisly acts of cruelty on other marine life).
Whether these shark draggers will face any charges remains unclear a month after the images went viral. Shark-fishing laws are complicated and their jurisdictions can be murky, but whether an act is legal basically depends on what type of shark is caught, where, with what, and if and when it is released.
The informed participation of fishermen is crucial to protecting shark populations. While the animal abusers in the video don’t seem concerned about the legality of their actions (or common decency), navigating federal, state, and local shark-fishing laws can be tricky business even for well-meaning anglers.
As an example, take the scalloped hammerhead, the first shark to acquire federal protections when it was placed on the Endangered Species List in 2014.
Shooting a Hammerhead
Killing a scalloped hammerhead would land you in trouble, yes? Not necessarily. Due to the wording of the species’ Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doesn’t consider this shark endangered or threatened on the Eastern Seaboard or in the Gulf of Mexico (just pretty much everywhere else in the world). So fishing for hammerheads in federal waters on the Atlantic coast is perfectly legal, so long as anglers have the proper permit.
And shooting the shark?
According to John Ewald, a spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, federal regulations specify what kinds of tools you can use to catch or retain a shark, and “a firearm is not an authorized gear type.” Good.
However, Ewald also says secondary gear can be used to “subdue the shark or assist in bringing it onboard.” Translation: In federal waters, you can’t use a gun to catch a hammerhead, but once it’s caught, you can shoot to kill.
Reeling It In
In state waters, which are closer to the coast, 26 shark species (including hammerheads) are off-limits to harvesting, which is defined as killing the animal or taking its fins or meat. So could the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission throw the book at these guys? Technically yes, but there’s a loophole here as well.
“Here’s a weird quirk of Florida law,” says David Shiffman, a shark expert and Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “You’re not allowed to kill or land hammerhead sharks within Florida waters, but if you catch one in federal waters nearby you are allowed to land it in a Florida port.”
You’re also allowed to catch a hammerhead with a hook in Florida waters, according to Amanda Nalley, a spokesperson for the state’s Marine Fisheries Management division. “You just cannot keep them,” she says. Protected species must be released immediately, unharmed, explains Robert Klepper, public information coordinator for Florida Fish and Wildlife’s law enforcement division.
This rule may sound like everybody wins, but the sharks still don’t. Hammerheads appear to have a stronger fight-or-flight response than other shark species, and the stress can be fatal. “When these [hormonal] pathways are enacted for prolonged periods, it can lead to overload and can cause damage and even mortality,” says Austin Gallagher, the chief scientist of Beneath the Waves, a conservation organization.
Gallagher was the lead author of a 2014 shark-tagging study in which 28 tiger sharks and 28 hammerheads were caught and released. All of the tiger sharks remained alive four weeks after capture, but nearly half of the radio transmissions for the hammerheads went dark over the same amount of time.
Common knowledge that hammerheads undergo more stress while struggling is partly why Florida made “landing” hammerheads, which includes removing a shark from the water to weigh or measure it, illegal in 2012. “We want to make sure you’re not dragging it over the hull of the boat and keeping it out of the water for an unnecessary amount of time to take photos,” says Nalley.
Unfortunately, the fact that hammerheads put up a good fight makes catching them desirable for some sport fishermen who find reeling in a shark for hours at a time exciting.
Despite Florida’s no-landing rule, hammerhead fishing tournaments—and ones that require photo authentication—appear to be legal. In the Big Hammer Challenge, hosted by the South Florida Shark Club, land-based anglers post photographs of their catches online to be eligible for cash prizes. Spend five minutes scrolling through these publicly available photos and you’ll see plenty of hammerheads pulled completely out of the water (which is illegal) for photos and measurements (which are illegal).
How is this allowed?
“I got nothing,” says Shiffman, who published a recent study in the journal Fisheries Research about these anglers. Shiffman and his coauthors learned that South Florida Shark Club members reported catching a total of 1,527 sharks of 15 species between 2010 and 2015. One in every four of those sharks was a protected species subjected to illegal fishing practices, such as landing or delaying the sharks’ release for measurements.
The scientists also found evidence that some anglers know that what they are doing is illegal—because they admit as much in the online forum. Some posts even offer advice on how not to get caught.
While these pictures are not nearly as egregious as the infamous shark-dragging video, Shiffman says the actions they document likely resulted in some deaths. (By the way, having a shark die after release does not disqualify you from the contest.)
Not all South Florida Shark Club members condone such behavior. “They’re upset when they hear about shark-finning. They’re upset when they hear about overfishing. And they regularly talk about this,” Shiffman says. The biologist says many do care about sharks and the health of the ocean at large.
“We are a conservation-based group of recreational shark fishermen,” wrote William Fundora, president and founder of the South Florida Shark Club, in response to a private message I sent him through the club website. “We support catch and release, encourage tag and release, and DO NOT IN ANY WAY SUPPORT THE MISHANDLING OF SHARKS.” (The all-caps emphasis is his.)
Zane Coker, a club member, blames a lot of the abuse on a combination of thrill-seeking and lack of education on proper angling techniques. In a message to me, he wrote, “[C]ountless other cruel events are taking place with NO INTENTION to be cruel whatsoever but out of pure ignorance or lack of experience.”
After speaking with two shark scientists, one federal and two state officials, a shark conservation advocate, and some recreational fishermen over the past three weeks, I’ve been left with the conclusion that shark-fishing rules are a confusing web of ambiguous and sometimes unenforced laws. So how can we expect a tourist who rents a reel for a week—or a boatful of drunken idiots—to get this right?
Unfortunately, whether or not the infamous shark abusers receive justice won’t make a dent in our collective impact on shark populations. “It’s always interesting to me that there’s mass outrage over how an animal is killed rather than how many animals are killed,” says Shiffman. According to one oft-quoted study, humans kill about 100 million sharks worldwide per year—or about 11,000 sharks every hour.
Conservationists and sport fishermen often blame those numbers on commercial fisheries and their use of longlines, stringing thousands of hooks across miles and miles of open ocean. But since 2012, according to NOAA’s Fisheries of the United States report, recreational anglers have killed more large sharks than commercial fishers have.
“Every time I bring that up it just blows people’s minds,” says Shiffman.
So the laws governing recreational shark fishing actually do matter a great deal—but are in great need of clarification. Not only do they potentially allow for animal abuse, but they also create confusion among fishermen.
The study also found that the disparity between what’s illegal in state waters and allowed in federal areas has created a cultural divide, with land-based fishermen feeling that the laws cater to the wealthy. Think about it: If you own a boat, you can head to federal waters, kill a hammerhead, and do pretty much whatever you want with it. But those same actions could land a guy fishing from the beach in jail.
“That’s a problem,” says Shiffman, “because if you feel like you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re less likely to follow decisions made at that table.”
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