Sharks get legal protection

Love for big sharks flowed freely Wednesday in Key Largo: Tiger sharks and three species of hammerhead sharks will join the list of sharks protected from harvest in Florida waters starting in January. This rule came on a unanimous vote by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A parade of shark supporters traveled to the Key Largo Grande Resort from throughout the state and urged commissioners to protect the big ocean predators.

“Nobody eats tiger sharks or hammerheads,” said Greg Jacoski of the Guy Harvey Foundation. “We don’t want to prevent anybody from fishing, but there’s no reason to harvest” the four species.

“This animal is on the brink,” said Ken Harris of Key West Extreme Adventures, a shark-watching charter. “We need to do more [protection], not less.”
Years ago, “it was nothing to see 10 big sharks, 200 to 400 pounds, in a day,” Harris said. “Now you don’t see six in a year.”

Hammerhead sharks are targeted by harvesters who want to sell the species’ fins to the Asian market for shark-fin soup, said University of Miami shark researcher Neil Hammerschlag. “The trade prizes them for their disproportionately large fins which have a high number of fibers,” he said.

Members of the Shark Savers group and the Oceana environmental group appealed for the closure.

“Divers do want to see sharks in the water; it’s the number one attraction,” said dive operator Hannah Medd of Palm Beach County. “More sharks mean more divers and more tourism.”

Team Rebel Fishing, a sportfishing group which specializes in releasing sharks it catches from shore, endorsed the ban and offered to share successful release techniques. But Patrick Barker of the Southeast Fisheries Association, a commercial-fishing group, protested the ban on killing tiger sharks and hammerheads as “a political issue not backed by science.”

“There is no specific stock assessment and I’m not talking about assessments from environmentalists,” Barker said, the only speaker who objected to the shark harvest ban.

Barker suggested a shark “population explosion” could lead to increased shark attacks on beachgoers.
Supporters dismissed that possibility as unfounded. “We want to see sharks again,” said Bill Parks, a marine-life collector. “We understand them better now.”

At a previous hearing, commissioners asked state staff to consider the feasibility of creating a shark tag, similar to a $50 tarpon tag, that would allow anglers to keep a big shark to record catch verification. Shark advocates said that would leave large pregnant female sharks — the animals most needed to maintain the slow-breeding species — as being the most desirable to catch.

The shark-tag idea has been indefinitely tabled, FWC Chairwoman Kathy Barco said. Fishermen “used to kill everything they caught,” said FWC Vice Chairman Kenneth Wright. “Now we know not to do that.”

The newly protected species — tiger sharks and three species of big hammerhead sharks (great, smooth and scalloped) — will join a list of 22 other shark species deemed no-take for legal harvest in state waters. Florida’s rule only affects nearshore state waters, but Hammerschlag said imposing the harvest ban in shallow waters where sharks come to deliver pups will have “a huge impact.”