May 16, 2018

State officials are considering drafting shark fishing regulations for anglers fishing from shore, bridge or pier.

NOAA State officials are considering drafting shark fishing regulations for anglers fishing from shore, bridge or pier.

FLORIDA — Images of protected sharks reeled ashore to be used as photo props by a gaggle of grinning fishermen irked board members of Florida’s top conservation agency.

A mother’s description of seeing her 3-year-old daughter hospitalized after being severely mauled by a shark, along a mainland beach where anglers were tossing bait to lure sharks, also struck a chord.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board members, meeting April 25, directed staff to draft tighter regulations on “land-based shark fishing” that will be go to public workshops before possible adoption.

“Clearly we need to do something,” FWC Commissioner Joshua Kellam said at the Fort Lauderdale session. “Some of these pictures on social media are disgraceful. We need to put something in place so it doesn’t continue happening the way it is.”

While the Florida Keys are not a hotbed for shoreline shark fishing, any state regulation on “land-based” fishing would apply to Keys fishing bridges and piers as well, an agency spokeswoman said.

While two sawfish species are Florida’s only shark species under federal Endangered Species Act protection, state law lists 26 shark species that are “prohibited from harvest in state waters.”

Catch-and-release fishing on sharks is permitted, but beaching a large shark long enough to allow people to pose for photos greatly reduces the shark’s chances for survival, speakers and staff said.

“That shark is dead,” Bob Harris of the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association said, displaying a photo of a large hammerhead surrounded by several men apparently celebrating. “With land-based shark fishing, what’s going on is an abomination.”

Melbourne Beach Mayor Jim Simmons called for the state to allow local communities to create zones that separate swimmers from areas where shark fishermen use “blood baiting” to attract their quarry.

“Right now, municipalities can do nothing,” Simmons said. “Shark fishing takes primacy over all other activity. … It’s not right, not safe and it’s not managing for the benefit of all Floridians.

“The shark-fishing community is very well-organized and very vocal but very small,” he said, noting Florida’s steadily increasing number of beach visitors.

Kellam pointed out that no shoreline shark fishers signed up to defend their sport at the meeting.

Jessica Veatch recounted a shark attack on daughter Violet, then 3 years old, at Stuart’s Bathtub Beach last August. 

“Her flesh was hanging off her leg. … She had blue lips because she lost so much blood,” Veatch said. “I didn’t know how fishing at the beach that day would put my child in danger.”

In opening remarks, FWC Marine Fisheries Management Director Jessica McCawley said there is “no credible evidence” that fishing at a swimming beach increases the threat of shark bites, and that shark-fishing advocates fear the loss of a traditional fishery.

A commercial fisherman contended shark populations have increased. 

“Sharks are out of control right now,” Steve English said. “We can’t hardly get a fish in the boat before the shark gets it. Our problem is that sharks are eating a huge percentage of the fish we depend on.”

McCawley agreed that improper or delayed release of landed sharks increases stress on the animal and could result in fatal organ damage. McCawley said the agency could act to “redefine the definition of temporary possession” of non-harvestable sharks.

Shark defenders said even with no-take regulations in effect for dozens of species, it appears very few shark fishers have been ticketed or received written warnings for improper handling.

FWC Executive Director Eric Sutton said while Florida is “a leader in shark conservation,” marine enforcement officers are spread thin and often face “some ambiguity” in shark-fishing rules. 

“I get that it’s an issue,” he said. “We recognize that we need to do more, with smarter and better patrols.”

FWC Commissioner Michael Sole said fishery managers should consider creating options, including a special permit for land-based shark fishers to ensure “they know the rules. …We need to go ahead and move forward on this.”

The board “directed staff to continue to stay engaged on all shark-related issues and to pursue development of draft regulations for shore-based shark fishing,” an agency summary says. After a series of public meetings, draft regulations will be offered at a future commission meeting.


Shark feeding

Commissioners briefly touched on the issue of shark feeding, a practice employed by some dive and charter operations for shark-watching experiences, including some in the Keys.

Shark feeding now is prohibited in state water but remains legal in federal water more than three miles offshore in the Atlantic.

McCawley said the agency has received “increasing diver concerns about aggressive shark behavior” possibly linked to shark feeding in specific areas.

Commissioner Gary Nicklaus said shark feeding has become “a big practice” near his Jupiter home and in the Bahamas, and asked if FWC staff has talked to federal fishing managers about regulation.

McCawley replied that when asked about shark feeding, federal fishery officials “feel it’s not in their purview to prohibit it” under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary federal law governing fisheries management. It “would take an act of Congress” to add shark feeding to the law, she said.

FWC Vice Chairman Robert Spottswood of Key West, acting as chair, asked the board to focus on land-based shark fishing, “not some of these other topics.”