Florida angler catches (and likely kills) Endangered great hammerhead shark

Image taken from the South Florida shark fishing club online forum. Photographer undisclosed. I have blocked out the angler's face to protect his identity

Update: The angler who originally caught the shark has responded. Please see below.

On February 5th, while standing on a beach in Miami,  a fisherman caught a 14 foot great hammerhead shark. According to his account, “we had it beached within an hour of hooking it. The fish weighed too much her girth was huge. Just the 2 of us wasn’t enough to get it out of the water….We snapped some pictures with our dying camera, measured it at 170 inches and spent the next hour walking back and forth with HER reviving her…it swam off slow and steady”

While this might appear to be a simple case of catch-and-release recreational fishing, it is not. My lab and I are  supporters of sustainable catch and release fishing.  However, it is important to note that since January 1, 2012, great hammerheads (an IUCN Red List Endangered species) have been a protected species in Florida state waters and have additional legal protections. The Florida code indicates that:

“(1) No person shall harvest, possess, land, purchase, sell, or exchange any or any part of these species:
…(k) Great hammerhead – Sphyrna mokarran.

…(3) “Harvest” means the catching or taking of a marine organism by any means whatsoever, followed by a reduction of such organism to possession. Marine organisms that are caught but immediately returned to the water free, alive, and unharmed are not harvested”

…(5) “Land,” when used in connection with the harvest of marine organisms, means the physical act of bringing the harvested organism ashore”  Florida code section 68B-44  (Emphasis mine)

In this incident, the shark was brought ashore. We can infer from the statement “the fish weighed too much her girth was huge. Just the 2 of us wasn’t enough to get it out of the water” that the fisherman attempted to pull it all the way out of the water, but was unable to do so (an important legal distinction) . Instead, he ended up beaching it, bringing it so far out that it could not move or breathe. The angler did not immediately release the animal. According to the angler’s account, it was measured and photographed prior to the attempt to resuscitate it. The shark was not released alive and unharmed. By the angler’s own admission, it took over an hour of resuscitation before the animal was able to even swim away slowly.

As Mike points out, there is a bit of ambiguity in this law concerning the words “landed” and “immediately”. Fortunately, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has a best practices guide  that clarifies the laws. Though it only references tarpon and grouper, I have been assured by colleagues at the FWC that it is broadly applicable to all saltwater fishes.

“Fish must be immediately released for several reasons. For example, there is no allowable harvest of goliath grouper and Nassau grouper in Florida…..When a fish isn’t allowed to be harvested, it must immediately be returned to the water free, alive, and unharmed. However, if a fish is allowed to be taken at a certain size limit, it’s okay to temporarily possess it to measure it, as long as it is measured immediately after removing it from the water, and the fish is then immediately returned to the water free, alive, and unharmed if it is not a legal-size fish….It is okay to take a picture of a fish that is not allowed to be harvested while it’s in the process of being released, but it still must be let go immediately and should not be held in lengthy poses just for the purpose of taking the picture. And it is never legal to hold on to or tow a fish that is not allowed to be harvested to a place to weigh or measure it ” FWC Saltwater fish best practices guide. (emphasis mine)

It is not legal to hold on to a fish that’s not allowed to be harvested just to measure it, which is what happened in this case according to the angler’s account. It is legal to photograph a restricted species as it is being released, which should occur immediately, but it is not legal to hold onto it just to photograph it. The photos show the angler posing with his catch, not the process of releasing it.

A call for leniency

As Chuck Bangley points out, “a surf fisherman caught a large, endangered, legally protected shark but also followed the best release practices he was aware of and showed some respect for the animal…. [he] seems to rather like the fish he’s angling, and therefore not a big part of the problem with hammerhead conservation. This particular fisherman likely made an honest mistake and, while the violation of the law certainly needs to be addressed, I hope they don’t come down too hard on [him].”

Bangley makes a good point- the angler made a good faith effort to release the animal unharmed. Personally, I’m more interested in using this incident as a teaching opportunity to promote more sustainable fishing practices for the future than in demonizing a young fishermen who wasn’t aware of the current laws and followed the best practices of which he was aware.

In the first eleven pages of comments on the South Florida shark fishing club online forum about this hammerhead, no one pointed out that the great hammerhead is a protected species in Florida waters. Clearly, more education about this issue is needed.

Samantha Whitcraft of Shark Savers, an organization that helped get the new FWC hammerhead protections passed, agrees. “From what we understand from this particular case, the fishermen ‘tried’ to execute a live catch & release; unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the shark survived but it does mean there is potential for education on how to do it better, especially given that the new FWC rule that protects hammerheads in Florida waters calls for education on this very subject.”

A teachable moment

Great hammerhead sharks are listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. They’ve suffered an estimated 80% population decline in the last 25 years. Their populations simply cannot sustain heavy fishing pressure. Large females, such as the one caught in this incident, are particularly critical if the population of great hammerheads is to recover,” said Dr. Neil Hammerschlag* , the Director of the University of Miami’s RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program.

According to Austin Gallagher*, a Ph.D. student in the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, “catch and release fishing relies upon the assumption that the captured fish survives when it is released.” Gallagher, a supporter of sustainable catch and release fishing who writes a column for Coastal Angler magazine, recently concluded a two year project focusing on how local species of sharks (including great hammerheads) respond to the stress of fishing and “fighting” a fisherman.

In his professional opinion, this great hammerhead shark did not survive this encounter. Gallagher said “You can tell that the animal is very rigid–almost like a rigor mortis.  Hammerheads almost always stiffen up when they are dead or dying (moribund). The fact that it is listing to its side and rigid corroborates this. An animal can still swim away and die afterwards. We have seen this as well by using certain telemetry devices such as satellite transmitters that record post-release behavior….Walking an animal for a long period of time is indicative of the physiological consequences of stress. You may be able to get an animal swimming for a brief moment, but it certainly does not guarantee survival. This is a massive animal–the metabolic demands for even for basic swimming of a super predator are large, let alone after being angled and brought to shore for an extended period of time.”

According to Gallagher, “species, not individuals, show the most obvious differences with how they respond to stress. Hammerheads fight so rigorously that they become exhausted, their blood becomes acidic and loaded with carbon dioxide. Our data shows that this acts like a lethal cocktail for the animal.The hammerhead reacts so strongly to being hooked that the exercise of fighting becomes too much for the animal’s body to take. In this sense, the fight becomes anaerobic–fighting without proper oxygen. Hammerheads have very small mouths, which limits the amount of oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide release. At the same time, lactic acid builds up in the blood–a by-product of anaerobic exercise. We have measured disturbing concentrations of all of these parameters in hammerheads, even after fight times of less than 20 minutes. Mortality can happen in many ways–the animal can die of exhaustion minutes, days, and weeks after a release. But the animal can also become preyed upon by another shark that notices the change in swimming speed or behavior.”

Law enforcement’s reaction

We asked Melissa Recks, the FWC regional biologist for South Florida, for an official statement regarding this incident.

“Our division of law enforcement and our legal staff have reviewed this incident, and there’s not enough information in the pictures that a clear violation has occurred. Our educational staff is working on reaching out to shark anglers to clarify the best practices for handling prohibited species to ensure their survival,” she said.

Best practices

This incident likely resulted in the death of an endangered species. Future conservation-minded anglers who wish the ensure the survival of endangered great hammerheads should be aware that these animals absolutely cannot withstand a prolonged fight or being restrained for more than a few minutes. Fighting the animal to restrain it so that the hook can be removed is worse for the animal’s survival than merely cutting the line (which should be done as close to the hook as possible to minimize the amount of the line that the shark drags).

I politely and respectfully suggested this to the South Florida shark fishing club here, and the club’s President, William Fundora, replied:


William, what I am suggesting is based on scientific data. Anglers, even experienced and conservation-minded anglers, can’t know what happens to the sharks after is swims away, and to assume that an animal survived because it swam away is not supported by scientific data.

Scientists can (and in many cases, do) know what happens to a shark after it swims away, thanks to telemetry data and stress physiology research. After a prolonged fight, great hammerhead sharks typically do not survive for long, even if they swim away. They don’t recover from stress as well as other shark species on a physiological level.

Walking the sharks to resuscitate is slightly better than “letting them sink” (which is not at all what I, or anyone else, suggested), as this process very slightly improves their ability to survive, at least in the short term. However, it is far better not to fight them for so long that they need to be resuscitated in the first place.  As soon as you identify the animal on the other end of your line as a scalloped or great hammerhead shark, cut the line with as little line attached to the shark as possible. This will maximize the shark’s chance of survival.  Also, it’s not just me saying this. The FWC best practices guide makes the exact same point:

“Anglers should also use common sense when releasing fish. Sometimes it’s better to safely handle a fish to carefully remove the hook so it can be released, and other times it’s best to cut the line as close to the hook as possible while the fish is in the water – especially if it’s large or agitated” (emphasis mine). Note that great hammerheads are both large and agitated.

Although the angler followed the best methods he was aware of and demonstrated a good-faith effort to respect the ocean and its creatures, by not following established best practices, a rare adult female member of an endangered species almost certainly died. This is a problem in of itself, and it has the potential to become a much bigger problem if not corrected.

I have invited members of the South Florida shark fishing club, fisheries managers, conservationists, and shark scientists to discuss this incident on this blog post. We all want the same thing, we all want there to be lots of fish (including sharks) in the ocean for a long time. It is my sincere hope that this incident, rather than turning into a shouting match between conservationists and anglers, can become a point of discussion about best practices for future sustainable use of marine resources. I also hope that it will draw attention to the rarely discussed practice of land-based shark fishing.

*As regular readers know, I am also a Ph.D. student in the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program. Dr. Neil Hammerschlag is my major adviser, and Austin Gallagher is a senior graduate student in my lab. We believe that fishermen have the right to fish, but that fishing should be done in a sustainable manner. Much of our research aims to better inform anglers so that they can continue to enjoy their sport while having a smaller impact on the marine environment.

Response from the Angler who caught the shark:

I would first like to address the author of this article. It is titled “Florida angler catches (and likely kills) Endangered great hammerhead shark”
… your addition of the words within the parenthesis automatically sets in a tone of bias towards one set of views and against me which I feel slightly threatened. The pen is mightier than the sword and a great speaker has the ability to sway public opinion whether it be good or bad.

The author also states “The shark was not released alive and unharmed. By the angler’s own admission, it took over an hour of resuscitation before the animal was able to even swim away slowly.” Again there is total bias and a wave of negativity thrown upon me (an angler whom which put in vigorous efforts in the release of such a magnificent creature).

In more specific details: I wrote in a different post about the efforts it took me and my friend to release this fish. I quote myself: “That shark was an intelligent creature and more than likely older than myself. I tend to respect my elders and help them out to the best of my abilities. I could tell that this shark was aching and was trying to curl up into a C shape in order to stretch and that it was under a load of stress. Dan and I worked quickly to photograph, clip away as much of the rigging as possible, and get the shark back into the water flow. The tide was incoming so we started by walking the shark against the tide which helped the flow of water throughout its gills. We repeated a few laps of walking back and forth with the shark. Our backs were severely aching from the sheer weight of this fish. Dan reminded me that from the extensive fight the shark had probably built up a ton of lactic acid within its muscles; so the second part of my plan was to get those muscles moving as best as I could, I held the shark by the hammer-like structure being careful not to poke it in the eye and I swayed its head back and forth, un-stiffening muscles and getting even more water flowing throughout the gills. Dan was responsibly swaying its tail and tail-end of the sharks body to also help release lactic acid and stiffness. The shark broke free from us 3-times but we quickly retrieved it and continued the walking process because I did not feel the animal was strong enough to survive at the moment. We ran into several spotted eagle rays and southern stingrays in the process (one of which I came within inches of stepping on… so please don’t tell me this process was not harmful to me.)”

Commenting on this remark: “It is not legal to hold on to a fish that’s not allowed to be harvested just to measure it, which is what happened in this case according to the angler’s account.” Of course I wanted a picture because that is my passion (to catch, photograph, and release big fish) and of course I measured it and did so speedily. There is nothing illegal about measuring a fish, please read the laws on harvesting snook, snapper, grouper, and other such fish which must be measured and is encouraged to send in data to the FWC for their studies. Also scientists that catch, tag, and release sharks “hold on to a fish that’s not allowed to be harvested” and they do measure it.

In “A call for leniency” I thank the author and Chuck Bangley for the needed support and seeing the situations more or less in my own shoes.

In “A teachable moment” I would like to say and think that I am not the heavy fishing pressure on the hammerhead population, I have only caught one in my entire life and I ensured its survival. I hope this “heavy fishing pressure” is referring to the legal and illegal long-line fishermen and I hope that that shady business can be ended completely.

To Austin Gallagher: You have made an educated response based upon the best of your knowledge and it is true that this fish was under a high level of stress, but I would like to point out that your statement about “Hammerheads have very small mouths, which limits the amount of oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide release” is not entirely accurate because most sharks do not actually use their mouths for breathing because they can get their oxygen with their mouths closed. Sharks flush water over their gills which is on the externals of the shark so the size of their mouth has little to nothing to do with their ability to breath.

Towards the people who have commented on this blog, I see different sides and I thank the people that understood that I am trying to conserve sharks and protect shark fishing rights and I tried my best and I am completely positive that that shark is swimming around at this very moment. To the other people who commented completely against me, that is your opinion but I believe your opinion may have changed if you were there to witness my situation and I hope that you could make the same decisions as I did rather than cutting the line, many yards away when we realized it was a hammerhead which was exhausted and in shallow water and probably would have had no chance of swimming away on its own, I chose to take the extra 5-10 minutes to bring this shark close enough to get as much of my rigging off of this shark without harming it and getting it into the current and assisting it in swimming, breathing, and relieving it of lactic acid build up so it had the chance to make a full recovery and break free from my iron grip and swim off steadily with what I believed was the certainty of its survival.

February 13, 2012 • 9:33 am