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Background information on our land-based shark fishing paper

A photo used in this study showing a hammerhead shark taken completely out of the water. As with all photos used in this study, the angler’s privacy has been protecting by blurring out his face.

I have a new paper out on the conservation impacts of recreational shark fishing. The paper is called “fishing practices and representations of shark conservation issues among users of a land-based shark angling online forum,” and it is published in the journal Fisheries Research. If you don’t have institutional library access, you can read a copy of the paper here. The goal of this blog post is to provide background information on the study.

Journalists are free to quote or paraphrase information from this blog post. Additionally, I provide some suggested quotes below, and I am available for interviews about this paper (please contact me at WhySharksMatter at gmail).

Why study recreational shark fishing / isn’t commercial shark fishing a bigger threat?
Recreational fishing for sharks is an emerging conservation issue that should receive much more research, management, and advocacy attention. In the United States, more large (non-dogfish) sharks are killed by recreational shark anglers than are killed by commercial shark fishers. Florida is a global hotspot for recreational shark fishing, and anglers are known to engage in illegal behavior with protected species. For some US fish species of concern, recreational landings make up more than 1/3 of total landings. Recreational fisheries that target that largest (and most fecund) individuals of a species can have a disproportionate impact on the population dynamics of a species. There’s no doubt that commercial overfishing is a major threat to many shark species, but recreational fisheries are a significant issue that needs more attention.

What is land-based shark fishing?
Land-based shark fishing is fishing for sharks from a beach, bridge, or pier instead of from a boat. This may present additional stressors to the shark, as they are sometimes dragged across rough terrain (e.g., sand, concrete, wood) while being unable to breathe and lacking the buoyant support of the water. This 2012 blog post of mine was about land-based shark fishing. Land-based shark fishing is comparatively understudied relatively to boat-based fishing.

To study land-based shark fishing, we performed a virtual ethnography of an online discussion forum used by anglers.
We identified an online discussion forum widely used by land-based shark anglers in south Florida. There are almost 50,000 posts from hundreds of users on this forum in a variety of topics related to shark fishing. Users do not need to register for the forum to observe what others have posted there, the forum is publicly visible. We focused on topics related to what species of sharks were caught, how they were handled, angler knowledge of and attitudes towards shark conservation, and angler knowledge of and attitudes towards other stakeholder groups (fisheries managers, scientists, and environmentalists). The discussion forum has years of previously-posted, publicly available information that can be used to determine angler knowledge and attitudes, as well as trends in fishing practices over time. Following established best practices for virtual ethnography and the terms of our University of Miami Institutional Review Board determination, we used passive observation (documenting what was posted on the forum without announcing our presence.) We did not interview or communicate with these anglers, we merely documented what they were saying to one another in this publicly accessible forum. Following established best practices and the terms of our UM IRB determination, we took great pains to protect the privacy of individual anglers who posted on the forum, including removing all identifying information (even pseudonym usernames) and blocking out faces in photos as seen above and below.

We found many unequivocal cases of illegal shark fishing, and evidence that some anglers know it is illegal
Under Florida law, several species including hammerheads, tiger sharks, and lemon sharks are protected. They may not be landed (defined as brought out of the water), and must be released “free, immediately, alive, and unharmed.” It is illegal to delay the release of a protected species to measure your catch or pose for a photograph. By examining photos that anglers posted of their fishing trips, we found many unequivocal cases of anglers violating these laws, taking protected species out of the water and posing for photos or measuring their catch. We also found an active discussion of how to avoid getting in trouble for illegal fishing behavior, demonstrating that some land-based shark anglers know that their practices are against the law.

Examples of unequivocally illegal shark fishing, with all faces of anglers blurred out to protect their identities.

We found that the 2012 introduction of new protections for hammerhead and tiger sharks had no effect on angler’s reported handling and release behavior for these species.
The percentage of hammerhead and tiger sharks reported as brought fully out of the water did not change after new protections were enacted in 2012. The percentage of hammerhead and tiger sharks reported as released did not change after new protections were enacted in 2012. Anglers who use this forum report landing hammerhead sharks less often than they report landing other protected species, and they report releasing hammerhead sharks more often than other protected species. However, the new regulations had no effect on their handling or release of these sharks.

We found evidence of mixed attitudes with respect to science and scientists.
Some forum users clearly respect scientists and the role that science plays in the conservation and management process. Some anglers explicitly suggested reaching out to scientists to partner on various shark research projects. However, others expressed deep skepticism of scientific results that they believed contradicted their experiences and opinions. There was also evidence of a perception that some scientists are biased against them and that nothing that these scientists do or say should be trusted.

We found evidence of a strong conservation ethic among some anglers
Some forum users express knowledge of and concern towards various ocean conservation issues, including overfishing of sharks. These anglers share conservation petitions and news stories, and promote catch-and-release fishing within their own community.

We found evidence that despite a shared worldview, these anglers do not hold environmentalists in high esteem.
Despite significant overlap in worldview (see above re: conservation ethic,) forum users have a very low opinion of ocean conservation activists and do not consider themselves part of that group.

We found evidence that land-based anglers feel that they are not a threat to sharks and should not be regulated.
Some anglers expressed a belief that while shark populations are in trouble and need to be protected, they are not the problem and therefore their practices should not be regulated. This notion of “yes there’s a problem but it isn’t me causing it” represents a significant departure from a “no there is not a problem” attitude expressed by anglers decades ago.

Self-reported demographics suggest that land-based shark anglers in Florida are overwhelmingly young, male, and low-income, in stark contrast the the overall Florida recreational angling community.
These anglers also perceive themselves as having very little political power compared to other Florida interests, including beach tourism and even boat-based angling. These demographic differences and perceptions may have important implications for how this group of anglers perceives new scientific research and new management regulations, and should be considered by stakeholder outreach efforts. If a group feels that they do not have a seat at the table, they are less likely to agree with and follow decisions made at that table.

Suggested quotes (from me, lead author Dr. David Shiffman, Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Simon Fraser University)
-“Statements from Florida land-based shark anglers suggest that they care deeply about sharks and their conservation, which is great to see. However, some common fishing practices used by these anglers raise significant conservation concerns, and in some cases are actually illegal.”

-“Anglers recognize that shark populations are in trouble, but believe that since the cause of these problems is commercial fishing, their own activities should not be regulated. They are correct that the initial cause of many shark population declines was commercial, not recreational, fishing. However, the problem is bad enough that all threats need to be considered and regulated, and recreational fishing absolutely represents a threat to some shark populations.”

-“Some of these anglers have a clear conservation ethic with respect to sharks and the ocean in general, but the hostility demonstrated by some anglers towards environmentalists, scientists, and regulators suggests that a new stakeholder outreach strategy may be needed to reach them.”

-“The results of this analysis clearly show that in some cases, recreational shark fishing represents an important conservation issue that should receive more research, management, and advocacy attention.”

Also, I am available for interviews about this paper. Please contact me at WhySharksMatter at gmail.

A note on comments on this blog post.
I am happy to answer any serious questions about this research asked in good faith. However, please be aware of this blog’s comment policy.

I am announcing now that I will delete any comments that falsely claim that:
A) Landing a protected species and/or pausing the release process to measure the catch is not illegal (it is illegal).
B) Analyzing publicly-accessible statements is against the law (it is not).
C) Analyzing someone else’s photographs for research represents a copyright violation (it does not).